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2 minutes to read Posted on Thursday August 16, 2018

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Linda Spurdle

Linda Spurdle

Digital Development Manager , Birmingham Museums Trust

portrait of Douglas McCarthy

Douglas McCarthy

Former Collections Engagement Manager , Europeana Foundation

Open up! Open access at Birmingham Museums Trust

Birmingham Museums Trust recently took the decision to make images of its out-of-copyright collections freely available under a Creative Commons CC0 waiver. Linda Spurdle, Digital Development Manager, tells Douglas McCarthy why the Trust is adopting open access policies and what it hopes to achieve.

The Travelling Companions (detail), 1862, Augustus Leopold Egg, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, CC0
The Travelling Companions (detail)
Augustus Leopold Egg
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
United Kingdom

What motivated the Trust to develop an open access policy?

We’ve been moving towards changing our policy at Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT) for some time. The Trust was founded in 2012 through the merger of Birmingham City Council-owned Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and Birmingham’s science museum, Thinktank. At this point, we had started to use an attribution-non-commercial licence for images we shared online prior to 2009. At that time, it seemed entirely appropriate. Now it seems out of step with the digital age we live in.

BMT consists of around 800,000 objects, displayed and stored in our nine venues. Most areas of the collection are designated as being of national importance, including the largest public collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world. We felt that the CC BY-NC licence had too many drawbacks. For instance, it deflected people who wanted to use BMT’s images in ways that would have increased the visibility and knowledge of our collection. Academics, in particular, felt like we were acting as gatekeepers, blocking the use of images in research and academic publications. It was also very difficult for us to enforce this licence as we don’t have the resources to pursue people who use images commercially without permission.

The open access policy has developed from our values. It is in line with our charitable objectives and our aim to grow and diversify our audience.

The Christabel Necklace, 1893, Sir George James Frampton, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, CC0
The Christabel Necklace
Sir George James Frampton (1983M3)
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
United Kingdom
The Christabel Necklace, 1893, Sir George James Frampton, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, CC0

There was still some apprehension around the policy, but what made this the perfect moment to win approval for open access is the fact that Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery will be closing for a period of redevelopment, currently planned from late 2019 until 2022. We want to ensure that people can continue to access and use our collection digitally despite not being able to physically visit our flagship museum.

Tell us about the decision-making process, the stakeholders and influencers

BMT has much in common with other cultural institutions worldwide who have released their images into the public domain. We want to make our collection accessible to as many people as possible, and this includes extending the reach and use of its digital assets worldwide. I researched who had done what, the reasons they gave, and the pros and cons of their decisions. The Europeaneau blog series ‘Museums in the Digital Age’ on GLAMs and open access was particularly useful.

As BMT is a charitable trust, I was very aware of the pressures to generate income. We do not make a great deal of money from licensing images, but nevertheless, it does bring in some money, and our digital assets are perceived as having the potential to generate more income as we develop products that are inspired from our collections. I knew that this could be a major issue for stakeholders. Working with BMT’s Digital Media and Rights Officer Nadine Lees, we came up with a compromise proposal whereby we would charge for licences of high-resolution images but we would release medium-resolution images (maximum of 300 ppi and 3Mb) into the public domain under a CC0 waiver. From her dealings with academics, Nadine felt that this image size would meet their needs. It would mean a small loss of income but would remove some of the concerns.

I wrote a paper with a series of options which I presented to BMT’s Directors, and after their approval, it went to the Board of Trustees. I had full support from my Director of Engagement, Janine Eason, in this process.

There was a question as to why we were not going for a CC BY licence. My argument was that we should not insist on attribution as we did not have the resources to monitor this. I also believed it could be a potential barrier to usage. Further, It also seemed very likely that most academics would give attribution.

The positive aspects of opening up collections

The positive elements for the open access policy as set out included:

  • Meets legal requirements of the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2015
  • In line with international and national practice
  • In line with BMT’s charitable objects
  • Allows for commercial exploitation of high-resolution images
  • Allows academics and researchers to use BMT images for research and publication at no cost
  • Allows BMT to provide public access to the collection (digitally) during a period of closure for Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.
  • Allows key partners, e.g. Wikipedia, to use BMT images, which they cannot at present
  • Increases public and commercial awareness of BMT’s digital assets
  • Clear and simple to understand (BMT currently releases images on a range of different licence arrangements which is confusing and difficult to manage)
  • Allows BMT to maintain the income we receive from print on demand services and commercial use of high-resolution images
  • Addresses criticisms by the academic community of current paid-for licences to use images for research and academic purposes
Monte Marmorolo, 1867, Elijah Walton, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, CC0
Monte Marmorolo
Elijah Walton
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
United Kingdom
Monte Marmorolo, 1867, Elijah Walton, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, CC0

What goals do have for the new policy and how will you measure success?

Success for us means that people use the images, with them appearing in more journals and articles, used by press and bloggers, perhaps turning up in new artworks or apps.

BMT’s Digital Policy and Plan 2018-22 laid out a vision to release collection images in the public domain under a CC0 Creative Commons waiver. However, we were aware that we had to do more to get the message out there and to get people thinking creatively about what they could do with the images. We held our first Digital Lab in March 2017 in order to bring people from the culture sector and technologists together to explore what they could create when they worked together.

Over the next couple of years BMT will hold a series of Digital Labs (remix events), funded as part of Arts Council England’s NPO programme, that will introduce audiences to the idea of accessing and creatively using our images, whether by community projects, schools, FE/HE, SMEs  or for individual use. BMT will also look to work with partners to encourage full access to images, particularly Wikipedia and Europeana.

Who do you think will benefit the most?

I think it will particularly benefit academics and researchers. I also hope that teachers will use the images in schools; that local community projects will find it a great resource for their work; and that creatives will be inspired to use them in things that they build and develop.

How will the policy work in practice?

Images will be released through the Asset Bank digital asset management system (DAMS) when we make it public-facing. At that point, people will be able to download and freely use all images in the public domain. We hope to make the first release of images via the DAMS in autumn 2018.

We have about 50,000 images and this number will grow. Over the next couple of years, we will be doing an increased amount of digitisation in preparation for moving objects out of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, prior to redevelopment of the building.

BMT will not release any images that are still in the copyright of the artist or maker, that have third-party copyright (e.g. trademarks) or are orphan works. We do not have the resources to undertake rights clearance.

What advice would you give to other museums considering open access?

It might be best to say come back in a year and answer that question! I would advise people who would like to do the same, but think it would be an impossibility at the museum they work for, to not give up. Find your case studies, identify the benefits, build your argument and look at ways that you might be able to minimise perceived risks. It may be difficult to create the change, but I think the first step is to make this an ongoing conversation rather than to accept that the answer is no.