Museum Collections Online

The Hammer Museum is very good; the Getty Villa is decent; and the Huntington Library is terrifically bad. I’m definitely not disparaging any of these institutions for their deservedly world-class collections. No, I was talking about something else: how much of their collections these places have made freely available as images on their websites (or hyperlinked to their websites).

First, a little story about how I came to be writing this post. I visited these intellectually impressive, wealth-boggling, and visually stunning institutions a month or so back. Being the absent-minded creature that I am, I forgot to bring a usable camera along on all three trips. (On one of the trips, I did bring a completely out-of-battery, as-dead-as-the-dodo camera.) So, not having any photos of my own after I got home, I resorted to trawling the museum, villa, and library’s websites for photos of things I’ve seen on my visits to put on better show-and-tells. It soon dawned on me that the Hammer Museum has digitized a chunk of their collections (although not all) and put it online so that their images were pretty easy to find; the Getty Villa has done less and what they had were scattered and harder to search for; while the Huntington Library had almost no goodly sized photos at at all.

Why? It does not seem likely that the answer is because the Huntington Library is less well endowed than the other two special collections. What’s more probable is the three institutions have different goals and priorities. As all three places undoubtedly have digital photos of their collections, for record-keeping & insurance reasons if nothing else, it must be that the museums are making a conscious decision not to put these photos online. What are the rationales for such a move? (I discount cost, as the cost for uploading and hosting these photos must be rather minimal compared to other operations (acquisitions, conservation, maintenance) that the museums take on?)

I ran through my head all the factors I can think of that a special collection would consider in deciding against making digital images of their collections freely available. Let me know if what your thoughts are.

First, the collection may be worried that the ready availability of these images would deter people from making the effort to see the actual objects. Having seen Audubon’s Birds of America both online and in its glorious, double elephant folio physical manifestation, I can safely say that few people (even philistines like me) would consider an online image an adequate substitute for “the real thing”. Birds‘ scale something absolutely non-conveyable with an online image that resizes with a computer screen. This must be true of almost all of objects in a museum’s collection — they’re valuable as material artifacts and they attract visitors for that reason. Digital photos cannot plausibly take enough visitors away from the actual objects to be a valid reason for not posting the photos online. Discard this reason then.

Second, the collection may be worried that having digital images of their collections online would cannibalize the sale of various souvenirs from their gift shops. While conceding that these institutions do inevitably sell images of their collections, either in bound, coffee table books or as individual items like postcards, I still don’t think that somebody who would’ve bought a book to display on their table would now use the images available online to satisfy that need instead. I hope I’m not being too dismissive in discarding this reason also.

Third, there could be intellectual property or contractual concerns surrounding the original objects that restrict the museums’ ability to make their images freely available online. Intellectual property issues, insofar as they exist, cannot bind very old objects, and many of these museums hold exactly these very old pieces. Could it be a contractual issue then? That is, if an exhibition is on-loan to the museum, even for an indefinite amount of time, the owner of the artifacts can stipulate that no photos of his collection be made available online. But then we should expect to see most of the permanent collection, i.e. those owned by the library, online, right? This certainly wasn’t the case with the Huntington Library where neither their seminal Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible nor Audubon’s Birds of America (long out of copyright!) was available for online viewing.

What could it be then? Can it be . . . me? Do the collections not like making their images available because then people will repost them on their own sites? But why is that so bad, especially if context and credit are given to the originating institutions? In addition, aren’t these non-profit organizations? Aren’t they behind Open Access, Creative Commons licenses, and the likes? Besides, if their worry is over their own intellectual property, then a large legal notice and some technological restraints are better deterrents than depriving the photos from everybody’s view, no? I think it’s probably not me, but if you guys know otherwise, do drop me a note. Drop me a note also if you know why photos from special collections are not as available as one may expect.

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