Editors’ Choice: “Can I Use This?” How Museum and Library Image Policies Undermine Education

Is the discipline of art history (together with museums and libraries) squandering the digital revolution? We’re not the only ones with this concern. Just last week James Cuno wrote a short article, “How Art History is Failing the Internet” and WIlliam Noeltweeted, “Calling on all other great libraries; follow @britishlibrary‘s example. Free your images!”

Although eight years have passed since Eastman Kodak announced that it would stop manufacturing slide projectors, we have built only a fragmented system for distributing high-quality digital images—one that is failing our students, our discipline and the public. More has changed than the technology we use to illustrate our lectures. Pre-digital, we sought and created slides from the best available sources. We retained excellent older reproductions, purchased high-quality sets, and made new images on copy-stands. In each case, the guiding principle was to expand the slide collection with the highest quality images. One might think digital technology would have made it easier to follow this principle; unfortunately, the opposite is true.

A culture out of step

Even though we live in a culture where high-quality educational resources are being widely and freely distributed (think iTunesUKhan AcademyedX), high-quality images remain expensive and using them for teaching is more complicated than ever. Even as access to educational materials becomes more open, and images become ever more ubiquitous, high-resolution images that reproduce works of art (with reliable metadata) remain highly restricted….

Restrictions limit influence
These restrictions produce an ironic result. The more museums restrict their images, the more works of art appear on the web in poor-quality reproduction, without color controls and without proper metadata. Restrictive museum policies seek to retain authority, but in practice render the museum’s expertise largely irrelevant for those beyond its walls. It is time for museums to support, not undermine, the public domain and to allow reproductions of their collections to freely circulate. Only in this way can they take a leadership role in our increasingly fluid visual culture. Do museums willfully avert their gaze from the fact that their collections are already online, in a black market of sorts, without the benefit of their expertise?

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: