Open Culture Brings Rare Paintings to Public Domain

By Prathima Appaji

The notion of culture is well understood around the world. Culture is the sum of values, ideas and expressions in the form of art, stories and music. It is part of what makes us, what we do and how we do it, knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation. Presently, museums hold the largest collection of culture in the form of paintings, sculptures, historical artifacts, and art. Despite being public institutions, access to this culture is predominantly restricted by strong copyright laws and physical barriers.

However, ‘cultural change’ is in the air, and more museums are joining the movement for open culture, ensuring that it reaches a larger number of people across the globe. With reduced public funding, this movement becomes more important to prove the relevance of museums in today’s digital age.

In order to achieve these objectives, a few museums are digitising famous works of art and culture and placing them in the public domain. These paintings are openly licensed and free to download by anyone with an internet access. Museums are openly licensing paintings of Van Gogh, Monet, and Rembrandt as a new outreach strategy,  using technology to advance global participation and to capture an international audience. Also made freely available are art catalogues and books detailing the art and life of these famous painters.

Besides public outreach and guaranteeing their relevance, museums are employing open culture as a tool for public education and to encourage the emergence of new talent. By doing so, they are turning passive audiences into active content generators of the future. Furthermore, open culture has become a platform for museums to shape ideas, dialogues and conversations. Thus, acting as a form of inclusion and an obstacle against the growing sentiments of religious extremism.

One institution out in front of the change is the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York City. In 2017, the MET made available 375,000 images of art under Creative Commons license. Most of these images are made freely available for unrestricted use under the Creative Commons Zero license. The MET also placed in public domain five decades of MET publications.

Similarly, the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Museum, also located in New York, has made 75% of its documented collection data available for free download under the Creative Commons Zero license. The data represents the foundational material on which exhibits are built. In an innovative way to engage users, the museum invites users to post their photos with the museum’s collection on Flickr and Instagram. Users can even report inconsistencies to the museum and help in updating the data.

While this has been a significant and favourable shift towards open culture, museums like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam have shown that even more is possible.  To date, the museum has digitised and made available under Creative Commons Zero license over 600,000 works of art, but additionally, they launched the Rijksstudio in collaboration with the Dutch Open Culture Initiative. Rijksstudio is a free online platform that allows users to download a digital copy of any piece of art or a portion of the art and alter it to make your own creation. Once creating this art, a user can download it and apply it to tattoos, wallpaper and smartphone skins. This has multiplied their revenue, promoted the museum beyond Amsterdam, augmenting the goodwill and reputation of the museum in the eyes of the public and donors.  Lastly, since 2012, the creation of new art has successfully more than quadrupled their initial collection.

The Center for the Future of Museums claims that “Museums already hold their collections in trust for the public both from an ethical and a legal perspective”.  Thus, adopting, maintaining, and furthering an open culture policy is not only a duty of museums today but also their moral responsibility. It is only when culture is open and freely accessible to everyone can we hope that the paintings such as the Sunflowers- van Gogh, Water Lilies- Monet, and The Night Watch- Rembrandt, inspire and engage generations to come.

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