Cultural Commons

Through digitalisation knowledge will be accessible universally soon.

GLAM institutions – galleries, libraries, archives and museums – are our cultural memory. They promote identity and are sources of inspiration and innovation. If their inventories – books and documents, images and films, sounds and everyday objects – are digitised, then they can potentially be made accessible to billions of people. That is, to everyone with access to the internet. Which will soon be everyone. 

A digital exhibition or concert can be visited by anyone with the right device. Physical presence is no longer necessary, which is especially good news for the old, the infirm and the disabled. Or for the history students in Sao Paulo who are not able to just jump on a plane to Cairo for the exhibits in the Egyptian Museum. 

This access to our common cultural heritage stimulates the capacity for innovation, since the new often stems from adapting and remixing the existing. It can also make accessible cultural assets that are endangered by religious fundamentalism (IS) or war and the like, and are not able to be exhibited or are stored in archives for reasons of conservation. By means of search functions, things can be located, and objects that had been scattered far and wide can come together in one place. Humanity becoming aware of its common cultural heritage is the first step towards a global consciousness that transcends parochialisms and local interests.

Museums and Libraries Putting Entire Collections Online

An initial project in this trend that received worldwide attention in 2004 was Google Books, which aims to scan each individual book and make them all searchable. Google has already digitised 30 million of an estimated 130 million books, but numerous legal disputes related to copyright are slowing it down. In the meantime, new initiatives have cropped up which are dedicated to digitising libraries. The most significant is surely the Digital Public Library of America. And other countries are following suit, such as Holland with its National Library of the Netherlands, Germany with the German National Library, Norway with the National Library of Norway or Australia with the National Library of Australia.

Some museums have been working on digital strategies since the turn of the millennium. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney was one of the very first, putting part of its collection up online. As part of its open content program, the Getty Museum (USA) has shown almost 100,000 exhibits online, and the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem has gone even further: not only has it digitised much of its material in 18 languages, but it also offers online courses. And we are now beginning to see the first museums to place their whole collections online, such as the Freer and Sackler Galleries (USA).

With Project Europeana, the EU is also investing in the digitisation of its cultural heritage: millions of texts, images, videos, sound recordings and 3D objects from monuments and architecture from European cultural institutions are going to be made accessible online. And more and more theatre and concert halls are offering online performances: The Berlin Philharmonic, with their Digital Concert Hall, are a popular forerunner amongst classical music fans. 

The Internet Itself is also Being Digitised

And who backs up the backup: the internet? The Internet Archive, an American non-profit organisation, has cached over 400 million websites, millions of books, videos, films, sound recordings, audiobooks and historical software.

The trend is accompanied by conferences addressing the topic, like Museums and the Web, the International Conference in Theory and Practice of Digital Libraries and Zugang Gestalten (Access Designed). At these events, the first graduates of courses such as Virtual Heritage or Digital Museum Studies are coming together.

Thanks to new procedures, digital processing is becoming faster and cheaper all the time. Which is what enables rapid capture protocol to scan 3,500 sites a day for less than one US-dollar per site. Even digital 3D image processing is nowadays affordable.

GLAM institutions in particular, which are dominated by conservative, often elitist and cliquish individuals, tend to regard the digitisation process with the hesitation one might expect. But anybody who wants to remain relevant has to develop a new self-image, must develop a “digital mindset” which is satisfies our altered behavioural habits. As a report from 22 cultural organisations put it:

“The challenge is not about technology, which we are often guilty of fetishising as a solution to problems. It is about audience and the ways in which digital technologies are changing their behaviours: at work, at home, on the move, learning, playing, questioning, socialising, sharing, communicating. Forever.” 

So What Does the Cultural Heritage of the Future Look Like?

Networks are developing that are sharing their inventories and are agreeing to uniform standards. So the Europeana is actually a library that just manages the metadata of thousands of interconnected libraries – the books themselves remain in the individual libraries.

The Wikimedia GLAM Project is also based on networked thinking. Volunteers make the knowledge of the cultural institutions freely available to everyone with internet access – hundreds of millions of site visitors per month make the demand clear. OpenGLAM, an initiative from the Open Knowledge Foundation, is likewise an open and global network. It initiates workshops and helps cultural institutions to share their inventories with the public, in order to contribute to a cultural commons.

Open Licences for our Digital Cultural Heritage

It is not just that digitised cultural assets can be distributed simply and widely on the internet, a whole new attitude develops that believes in sharing, redesigning and remixing works. A pioneer of this attitude is Merete Sanderhoff from the Danish National Gallery. In the book Sharing is Caring, she recommends using open licences according to the Creative Commons principle for digitised collections. In this spirit, the cultural institutions of the American Yale University announced in 2011 an open access policy, and declared all works not covered by copyright to be public property. This new standard is also being followed by the National Gallery of Art in the USA or the English Tate Gallery, which published their collection databank on Github so that others can work with it. Github also hosts the metadata from the Cooper Hewitt Museum (USA). Will Github, the depot for software code, also become a depot for digitised cultural assets?

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is equally open to remixes: the more than 200,000 exhibits on their website are all free to be used, there is even an interface for developers. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have put together the images and data for over 170,000 personal virtual exhibitions. Taco Dibbits, Director of Collections, has no fears that the artworks will be publicly defaced. On the contrary: “the action of actually working with an image, clipping it out and paying attention to the very small details makes you remember it.” If somebody wants to print a Vermeer on their toilet paper, he’d prefer it to be a high quality reproduction than a bad one. 

Building Cultural Heritage Together and Developing New Formats

Thanks to digitisation, many people can work on developing our cultural assets. Museums like the Walters Art Museum (USA) or the organisers of Coding da Vinci in Germany run hackathons where creatives and programmers come together to develop new games, apps, eBooks etc.

The web portal Europeana invites people to contribute their own eye witness accounts from the First World War for virtual exhibitions. 90,000 privately owned personal documents have been scanned in and uploaded. And the curators of the Tyrell Collection (Australia) benefit from the fact that the public tags the photos on Flickr. The tags were integrated into the museum databank, making the images more searchable.

Innovative cultural institutions are also experimenting with new formats. In the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum (USA), visitors can piece together their own collections with a smart pen and present them online. And at the British Museum in London, people can download models of sculptures and artefacts and print out 3D pharaohs. And via video channels, museums like The Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen or Yad Vashem (Israel) can reach millions of new visitors. 

Digital Freedom is Often Foiled by Copyright

Most cultural institutions are acting with hesitation. While lots of showcases come from Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries, of the approximately 30,000 German cultural institutions, just 2,000 or so are currently represented in the German Digital Library. The problem is often copyright. Thus, when the Danish National Museum wanted to show the connections between their own works and those in other museums in the course of their project “Art Stories”, they were tripped up time and again by questions of copyright and intellectual property, because most of the works in museums are currently not yet “in the public domain”, that is, unaffected by copyright. Many cultural institutions also want to earn money from their image rights. Merete Sanderhoff cites the example of a teacher of a course at an adult education centre who wants to use an illustration for her class: she either has to pay a fee to the respective museum, or be content with the free, poor quality copies that are already online. According to Sanderhoff, the departments that manage image rights are unprofitable. However the museums which make their works available to the general public for free, but charge a fee for commercial users – advertising agencies, publishers, etc. – are significantly more profitable.

Copyright also applies to music and theatre performances. New providers are attempting to get around these limitations. MusOpen is a non-profit organisation that collects public domain sheet music and recordings, craftily frees them from copyright, and then makes them available to the public for free. 

Problems with Financing and Technology

Financial resources are another hurdle in the digitisation of cultural heritage. Although the technologies are becoming better and cheaper, there are still costs associated with employees and technology. Cultural institutions have to develop new business models, especially since in many countries the funding for projects for the common good is shrinking.

While the German Digital Library receives 24 million euros in funding from the federal and regional governments, the costs of the Digital Public Library of America are covered primarily by American foundations such as the Knight Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For developing countries, the costs are an even bigger challenge, as they often lack the technology. The Ugandan Makerere University is only able to very sluggishly digitise the musical traditions of the country, since there is a lack of video  and audio recording devices.

Financial shortages can be tackled with public-private partnerships. Companies such as Google or Microsoft offer their services to GLAMs. For example, Google has founded the Google Cultural Institute and started the Google Art Project.

But are organisations with commercial interests suited to be the guardians of cultural heritage? In negotiations with the Danish National Museum, for example, Google insisted on receiving the image rights, so that the exhibition could only be seen on the Google Art Project. The Europeana on the other hand, declared in 2012 all its collected documents to be public property, so that they could be freely used.