Assessing the Impact of Open Access on Museum Image Use Policy

By Ian Gill

I entered the San Francisco State University Museum Studies program in fall 2015 with a planned focus in Collections Management and Registration. Through program coursework and internship experiences, my interests expanded to other aspects of collections care, including database management, intellectual property issues, and the way that technology facilitates interaction with collections. In planning my graduate thesis, I was interested in investigating ways that museums are adapting to the challenges of integrating new technology into collections care. My research led me to Open Access, which I saw as an exciting possibility for museums to adapt to today’s digital landscape.    

The phrase “Open Access” refers to efforts made by museums to provide high-resolution downloadable images online, free of charge, and adopt less-restrictive image reproduction policies. Beginning in 2010, these efforts were made to maximize the ability for a user to interact with, share, and reuse images, while also informing the user on the various restrictions and terms of usage that exist online. These and similar efforts have been described using phrases such as “Open Access,” “Open Data,” and “Open Content.” Some examples of institutions with Open Access policies include the Rijksmuseum, the National Gallery of Art, The Getty, LACMA, and recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art

                                                                                                                 Rijksmuseum, “The Milkmaid,” Johannes Vermeer

While researching Open Access, I noticed that much of the existing literature approached the subject in terms of how and why specific institutions had adopted it. In contrast, I was interested in examining the scope of Open Access across the museum field as a whole. Was Open Access appealing and/or desirable to institutions across the country, or simply the realm of a few larger institutions? Did institutions throughout the field find value in Open Access, or alternatively, why not?

Survey and Literature Review

To approach these questions, I surveyed museums across the United States. I developed a survey of twenty-six questions, with sections relating to demographic data, open access philosophy, and the specifics of open access implementation. These questions gauged each institution’s current level of technological implementation (for example, whether collection information was posted on the website), and asked what they planned to do in the future. To aid with developing survey questions, I conducted a literature review, each section dealing with topics relevant to Open Access implementation in museums. The review addressed topics such as how museums utilize images, the recent history and development of “Open Access” in museums, the logistics of implementing Open Access, and a discussion of prior studies assessing Open Access implementation in museums. Surveys were sent to a sample composed of AAM-accredited “Art Museums” (as designated by the AAM) that possessed permanent collections. Surveys were mailed to institutions in November 2016.

Survey Results

I received responses from 68 of the 150 surveyed institutions, a response rate of 45%. Respondents skewed evenly across the various demographic categories defined in the survey (for example, public versus private and the overall size of staff and budget). In addition, the surveyed institutions established a benchmark for current use of technology, with the majority indicating that they had digitized most of their collections and maintained discreet collections pages online.

Overall, survey responses indicate that museums are not widely implementing Open Access. When asked about current implementation, 18% of respondents responded positively, in contrast to 69% responding that they did not currently implement Open Access. However, when asked about the future, this “No” splits nearly in half, with 40% of respondents indicating that they were not planning on Open Access implementation for the future in contrast to 34% indicating that they were “In Discussion/Undecided.” This “Undecided” figure, in addition to the 18% “in process of implementing,” indicates a great deal of potential for Open Access across the museum sector.

Other Findings:

My survey results provided insight into Open Access implementation in a variety of areas. Responses indicate consensus on the definition of “Open Access,” as well a general perception of Open Access as benefiting the public, promoting scholarship, and aligning with the museum mission. In addition, responses indicate that some complications with Open Access include difficulty with managing copyright issues, and that Open Access is expensive to implement. This information aligns with existing literature and previous studies on the subject, suggesting a general consensus throughout the field regarding the benefits and difficulties related to Open Access implementation.

Despite this general consensus of information, my project also indicated the particularities of Open Access implementation to each individual institution. There is no single way to go about Open Access, as many institutions utilize technological systems and policy that best suit their own needs.

Overall, it remains to be seen whether wider Open Access implementation is on the horizon. However, keeping in mind that only seven years have passed since initial implementation, a great deal of work has already been done towards greater Open Access implementation, and a great deal of potential exists for the future. The work and systems that institutions are currently developing may provide a template for other museums, and perhaps it will simply take more time. 

A full copy of my paper, Assessing the Impact of Open Access on Museum Image Use Policy, is available here:

Ian Gill is a recent graduate of the Museum Studies M.A. program at San Francisco State University, with a concentration in Collections Management. When not visiting museums, Ian enjoys watching Basketball and listening to film scores. He currently works as the Registrar for a contemporary Art gallery in San Francisco, CA. 






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