Museum Collections: Digitization → Dissemination → Dialogue


A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. – International Council of Museums, 2007 Statute, article 3, section 1

This blog posting will discuss how (art) museums started digitizing their collections for the purposes of internal collections management and preservation during the last ten to fifteen years, and are now disseminating these digital images to the general public to freely access on their Web sites, and furthermore, they are encouraging audiences to actively engage with the content through dialogue, creation, and even appropriation using Web 2.0 tools. Some of the key issues will be raised, as well as theoretical implications and a few noteworthy examples that present unique opportunities as well as challenges.

Technology today allows museums to explore their goals of “education, study and enjoyment” in previously unimaginable ways, reaching out to a much larger and wider community than their physical museums could ever support. The words, “in the service of society and its development” are critical to the modern museum, which has redefined it mission as a populist one, embracing both the educated and uneducated, locals and foreigners, young and old. The primary goal for museums today is to provide all visitors with the greatest amount of opportunities with which to access their information through as many channels as possible, largely dependent on individual preferences for learning and enjoying. For this reason, the focus has been on quantity; reaching the largest number of visitors, offering the largest number of interpretive and educational tools (analog and digital), and presenting the largest amount of information that targets as many different audiences as possible. Museums realize that the Internet offers the ideal medium with which to do all this, and consequently they have begun transforming their Web sites to become more accessible. But the critical questions one must ask now are access to what kind of information, how is this information being accessed, and what happens after it is accessed? While many museums have been successful at widely disseminating their collections (at least partially digitized and online), they are now shifting their focus to audience participation through the creation and sharing of information. The particular ways in which museums engage audiences on the Web will determine if these new “networks of creativity” (Manuel Castells) reinforce a culture of individualism or communalism, and to what extent they generate creative activity and new knowledge.


On January 28, 2009, the British Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF) announced that it had partnered with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to place all 200,000 of the United Kingdom’s (UK) oil paintings in public ownership on the BBC Web siteby 2012. A new section will be created on the site entitled Your Paintings, described by BBC News as “a one-stop shop for the public to view and find information on every oil painting in public ownership.” The partnership agreement states that the BBC will build, host, and completely fund the website, and the PCF will build and completely fund the painting database, supplying digital images and data from this database to Your Paintings Web site. Judith Nichol, head of BBC Partnerships, stated that the partnership arose from an approach made to the BBC by the PCF, describing the BBC’s primary aim as:

…to publish a resource with which the BBC can integrate its arts programming and extensive archive of arts material. We also wish to bring a wider range of the public than would normally attend an exhibition to a resource that they own through the medium of online…The opportunity is for the BBC to bring its skills in engaging and entertaining a wide audience to this subject.

With the BBC Web site enjoying a weekly viewership of 40 million people, 87,954 sites linking in, and ranked #44 in all of cyberspace (all statistics from Alexa Internet, retrieved April 15, 2009), it is rather surprising that the BBC is concerned about access. As a national media source and a “public sector broadcaster,” the BBC receives its fair share of criticism from the public, particularly those in the UK (38.7% of its Web site users) that believe the BBC should be presenting more socially relevant and edifying content.

From the perspective of the PCF, director Andrew Ellis states that, “The BBC is national. That was key. It also has the third most popular website in the UK and has great experience in the area of interactive public engagement. It is the perfect partner.” At first glance, however, one would suppose a more suitable partner to be an arts institution, perhaps at a national level like the National Gallery in London that houses one of the greatest collections of Western European paintings in the world (and that also started the National Inventory Research Project). But there are a few problems with this idea, the first being it’s Web site. The National Gallery’s Web site is ranked #94,897 compared to #45 for the BBC, it has 2,351 sites linking in compared to 87,954 for the BBC, and users spend an average of 2.5 minute a day on the site compared to 6.7 minutes a day for the BBC. The BBC Web site clearly provides greater opportunities for access, especially given the fact that 65% of the UK, including Northern Ireland, has Internet access (UK Office for National Statistics, 2008 Omnibus Survey).


A second concern is that because the 200,000 paintings come from public institutions around the UK, to choose one over all others – even a large, established one – would have incited much protest and controversy. The BBC, therefore, was a neutral choice, a perfect partnership for both parties. There is only one hitch; the images will not be public domain, as confirmed by Ms. Nichol. The BBC’s preliminary plans are to make the Web site as interactive as possible, with opportunities to rate paintings, add comments, and link to galleries where the paintings are being exhibited or stored, to other “reputable sources of information,” and to places where prints can be purchased online. But the perfect plan somehow seems slightly less perfect if publicly owned paintings in a publicly accessible medium will not be public domain. Ms. Nichol does clarify that, “the final agreement on what can and cannot be done with the images on the site is yet to be finlaised [sic],” so one can only hope that the communal spirit of access and sharing will be extended to this matter as well.

It should be noted that many countries have created national archives of their cultural patrimony, but the UK is unique in its partnership with a broadcasting Web site for these ends (although the PCF is not a public initiative, it was charged by the government with photographing and recording all publicly owned paintings). Other examples include Artefacts Canada that includes over 3 million object records and 580,000 images of works housed in Canadian museums, as well as the Virtual Museum of Canada that has an Image Gallery with over 750,000 images. In 1975 the French government created Joconde that includes images of all paintings drawings, and sculptures in French museums. It went online in 1995, in 2004 it was combined with separate databases for archaeology and ethnology objects, and today it contains over 400,000 listings and 220,000 images.


It is not uncommon for museums, cultural institutions, and even national archives to seek sponsorship from mass media that offer global distribution channels driving increased traffic to their online collections, exhibitions, and activities. The virtual art museum of Uruguay (Museo Virtual de Artes – MUVA) has been sponsored by the national newspaper El País since it went online in 1997, forming a merger now called Museo Virtual de Artes El País. Mass media partners include not only corporations that can provide critical financial support and sponsorship, most notably media partners, but also social networking sites (SNS) that can tap into previously established relationships and communities to rapidly spread information throughout the Internet by peer-to-peer connections (p2p) with mostly younger users. Many of these SNS are themselves owned by global media corporations that ensure their global reach. Flickr is owned by Yahoo, as is the new social bookmarking site, YouTube is owned by Google, iTunes is owned by Apple, and MySpace is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Mass media Web sites like BBC or Google normally have community discussion forums and blog postings that are very active with rapid responses from people communicating around the world. By utilizing these third-party spaces, museums provide not only greater access to their collections (targeting a younger audience), but more importantly, they encourage participation and dialogue by creating a sense of community and a new, hipper image contrasted to the stereotypical rigid institution of faceless names, static veneration of the past, and scholarly pursuits (Berwick, 2007).

More than just distribution channels and chat forums, these third-party sites also serve museums as digital image repositories. Some of the most well-known are Google Images, a separate search tool for images within Google started in 2001, currently with over 245 million images in its database, and ARTshare, an application within Facebook started by the Brooklyn Museum of Art to share works of art. ARTshare currently has 200 million images with 100,000 images being added daily by the 34 participating museums around the world.

The Commons on Flickr

The Commons on Flickr was launched in January 2008 together with the US Library of Congress to “increase access to publicly-held photography collections, and to provide a way for the general public to contribute information and knowledge.” The home page asks users to help describe photographs by adding tags or leaving comments.

It is important to note that the partners and digital image repositories used by museums are not only commercial and/or corporate in nature; there are also successful non-profit models. The most well-known is ARTstor founded in the 1990s by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the purposes of “education and scholarship” (they also created JSTOR, an online repository for scholarly journals). Their digital library currently has almost one million images, with 995 partners in the US and another 161 internationally (partners include museums, colleges/universities, K-12 schools, public libraries, and independent art schools). While ARTstor utilizes SNS like Facebook and YouTube, access to the image databank is limited to affiliation with participating non-profit institutions. Another more recent addition is artCloud, founded by Steven Henry Madoff, a former ARTnews editor and Time Inc. consultant. It functions as more of a social networking site for artists, arts professionals and institutions, allowing users to upload images, share them publicly, and create their own profiles with My artCloud. Currently there are 23 museums participating from around the world.

Another model for museums is to collaborate with other arts institutions to create online image repositories. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have created ImageBase with over 82,000 images, and the Art Museum Image Consortium (AMICO) was created in 1997 as a partnership between art museums internationally for the educational use of their images (it ended in 2005). The ArtsConnectEd database is a joint project of the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Certainly larger museums with substantial resources host their own archives and databases with search engines on their own Web sites, but collaboration in any manner is always helpful to facilitate access.

These non-profit models are particularly useful with digital, new media, or net art. Three examples are Rhizome that is housed at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, NY and has an ArtBase with almost 2,500 works, the Whitney ARTPORT has related resources as well as archives and current commissions and exhibitions, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s online gallery started in 2002 as the first museum collection of Web sites displayed on the Internet.


In 1997, the Getty Foundation launched its Electronic Cataloguing Initiative, awarding $4.9 million in grants to 21 arts organizations in the Los Angeles-area. By the end of the 6-year grant period, the organizations had created more than 250,000 digital images and began providing online access to 185,000 objects. This was a time when museums were just beginning to develop Web sites, states foundation director Deborah Marrow in the report released ten years later that discussed lessons learned (Schneider, 2007).

The Getty’s Electronic Cataloguing Initiative was designed to help Los Angeles museums and visual arts organizations make information on their collections available online….Today, a Web-savvy public expects immediate user-friendly access to visual arts collections. Although many museums have at least a part of their collections available online, organizations still struggle with how to fund, develop, and justify these programs. What, after all, is the relationship between collections access and a museum’s core responsibilities? Can online access have a meaningful impact on an institution’s broader mission and programs? How will online access affect an organization’s budget and operations? The report also lists six reasons for a museum to pursue online cataloguing of its collection: increase access, expand audiences, support teaching and learning, improve documentation, preserve collections, and streamline workflow.


The Getty Foundation’s current initiative – the Online Scholarly Cataloguing Initiative (OSCI) – began a few years ago. In 2008, the foundation decided to invite eight art museums from around the world to participate, based largely on their substantial resources and experience with new media. All proposals have now been approved by the foundation, and the museums will begin their initial research phase of one to two years. Joan Weinstein, Associate Director of the foundation and project manager, talks about the project goals and vision:


In transforming the catalogue to an online environment, they won’t be just scholarly. The premise is that you can include all kinds of information online that you can’t in a print volume, information for everyone from the general public to students to scholars. You don’t have to wait until everything’s complete to put it online. You can have multiple voices in single entries: For more recent work, you can have both artists and curators speaking. Same thing for older collections. You can have conservators speaking and you can put the conservation documentation online. You could even super-impose an x-ray onto the image of a work of art itself (Green, 2009).


The foundation envisions creating greater access to scholarly catalogue content to scholars, the general public, and students. An online catalogue could provide a wider array of information that is constantly updated with changes in conservation, scholarship, exhibition history or ownership, linking to related sources around the world and facilitating greater collaboration between scholars and museum professionals for purposes of curating, research, and conservation. It could also remedy the problem of out-of-print catalogues and might even reduce expenses by museums offering print-on-demand services. For a good example of an online catalogue, the Sir John Sloane’s Museum in London currently has three on its Web site “to make the collections available as freely and widely as possible.”

Sir John Sloane’s Museum

Erin Coburn, head of Collection Information and Access for the J. Paul Getty Museum, already has experience creating online catalogues for the museum starting in 2005. She is excited about the possibility of reaching a wider audience on the Web, stating in a recent interview that,

One of the things that I’m really interested in is, when you put it out there on the Web you have no idea who your audience is anymore. We get probably as high as 40-50% of our traffic into our collection right now directly from Google. And so I’m really fascinated by this notion that by liberating such wonderful, incredible scholarship that is academic and scholarly, by liberating it from the print form, I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised by how many people that are not academics are interested in this material.

Ms. Coburn confirms that their entire painting collection falls into the public domain, and so consequently the online images are public domain images. It will be interesting to see how each participating museum facilitates access to the general public, how they address issues of fair use, and how much they embrace the ideas of user-generated content and shared knowledge within the context of a scholarly publication. As Ms. Coburn describes the museum perspective, “I think that part of our mission is a responsibility to educate our public and create access to what’s in our collection, but also to provide them with the most accurate and up-to-date information.” Many of the issues in the future will be around data reliability and trustworthiness. As greater and greater amount of information can be accessed on the Internet (including content generated by both amateurs and professionals), procedural transparency, clear metadata, and accurate cataloging become critical matters for museums to address and even to coordinate throughout the global museum network. It is an exciting proposition for museums to build such networks, but the general public as well as fellow scholars and institutions must all be incorporated. The Getty Foundation foresees this democratization of access and knowledge creation as the future that museums will need to contend with. Hopefully this planning phase will help these pilot museums prepare for the challenges and help other museums through their experience.


These latest trends in seeking greater dissemination and sharing of information could lead to museum audiences working together to form new on-line (and even off-line) communities and social networks for the greater good. But they could also lead to audiences becoming increasingly fragmented and individualized as they appropriate content to suit their personal interests through solitary activities in front of one’s computer, and as museums continue to target specific groups on their Web sites. Academics have blamed the mass media and corporate marketing for exacerbating this latter socio-cultural condition, pointing to practices such as data mining, narrowcasting, direct mailing, and receiver-sensitive websites that can be described as the one-step flow of communication (Bennett and Manheim, 2006).

Digital technology has also received its fair share of blame for facilitating these transformative practices, including the hypertext, tagging, email, and text messaging/SMS that are based upon individual profiles. Technology becomes appropriated by its users, resulting in the notion of “MY hypertext” (Castells) or in “baroquization, creolization, and cannibalism” (Bar, 2008), often producing innovative and creative solutions, but at the same time reinforcing the performance of personalization. Castells has stated that “the dominant culture of the Internet is a culture of networked individualism, a self-selected network.” Museums encourage users to appropriate their online images by offering the ability to create My Collection (Smithsonian American Art Museum), My Art Gallery (Seattle Art Museum), My Scrapbooks (Institute of Chicago), Art Collector (Walker Art Center/ Minneapolis Institute of Arts), and Bookmarks (The J. Paul Getty Museum).

SAM My Art Gallery

Many museums are now using these tools that more deeply engage audiences with the thousands of images they are posting online from their collections. Once audiences have created their own collections, they can share them with friends (often sent as postcards), “publish” them online for the public to view, comment on and rate, learn more detailed information about them, tag them as a collective activity, and in general, make these images personally relevant to their individual interests and proclivities.

The Steve Project for social tagging is important to mention here as an on-line collections-based activity, dependent on user participation to categorize images. Many people also consider the SNS Flickr and to be examples of such folksonomy tagging. Funded heavily by the US Institute of Museums and Library Sciences since it started in 2005, Steve is “a collaboration of museum professionals and others who believe that social tagging may provide profound new ways to describe and access cultural heritage collections and encourage visitor engagement with collection objects.” Users can share their favorite images and tags with others, invite friends to participate, display their tagged works on their Facebook profile pages and see the most popular tagged artworks. Their website asks the question, Why tag art? And their answer is,

See art you haven’t seen before. Look in a new way. Describe works of art in your own words. Exchange your ideas with the community of art lovers. Lead others to artworks they wouldn’t normally see. Create a personal relationship to works. Let museums know what you see. The more you tag, the richer the experience for all.

In a 2009 report on the results of the Steve Project, Jennifer Trant states that,

Tagging is shown to provide a significantly different vocabulary than museum documentation: 86% of tags were not found in museum documentation. Tagging by the public is shown to address works of art from a perspective different than that of museum documentation. User tags provide additional points of view to those in existing museums records. Within the context of art museums, user contributed tags could help reflect the breadth of approaches to works of art, and improve searching by offering access to alternative points of view.



For a good example of tagging in museums, see The Indianapolis Museum of Art. A list of papers and presentations about the Steve project since 2005 can be accessed at:

Along with these trends, museum practices could continue to become even more populist and open, embracing non-expert participation and the concept of collective intelligence, or rather more controlling and hierarchical in response to the unpredictability of increased public information on their Web sites. So far, museums retain a large amount of control over user-generated content that is publicly displayed, whether on their Web sites for kids and teens, on their SNS accounts, their discussion forums, or even how their on-line content can be publicly used. Trust and credibility are essential for motivating individuals to engage in collaborative activities on-line, such as tagging and sharing personal collections, and museums must determine the delicate balance between community and authority. [We are not including a discussion of remix, although it is an important and controversial creative activity by professional and amateur artists utilizing on-line images to create their own images, and one which is driving many museums to revisit their policies on rights and reproductions. For information on the value of remix and Creative Commons, read Larry Lessig’s newest book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy.]


Jeremy Rifkin (The Age of Access, 2000) states that direction, control, and goals are vital to navigate this online age of access, and museums are no exception. As we recall the ICOM’s definition of museums that operate “in the service of society and its development,” it becomes clear that museums must prepare their visitors to develop Jenkins’ “cultural competencies and social skills” for the 21st century age of access and excess of information. Museums have a special responsibility to help youth manage the extraordinary amounts of information they continue to place on the Web, with more information being added constantly from the collective intelligence and participation they seek from their expanding global audience. We know what kind of information is being accessed on-line and we know how it is being accessed technically, but what is done with it after depends on how it is being accessed in terms of intuitive capabilities. Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s Good Work projects focus on ethics and judgment, the latter of which he states is the most relevant skill needed to navigate new digital media and evaluate the reliability or credibility of information sources. Rifkin also states that the development of social trust and social exchange are necessary for communities to engage in commerce and trade. Castells best explains this civic responsibility of museums in The Internet Galaxy (2001),

…the study of sociability in/on/with the Internet has to be situated within the context of the transformation of patterns of sociability in our society. This is not to neglect the importance of the technological medium, but to insert its specific effects into the overall evolution of patterns of social interaction: space, organizations, and communication technologies (125).


The Internet’s capacity to store an extraordinary amount of data and images, combined with the rapid dissemination and transfer of information on a global scale, can often cause what is commonly called “information overload;” too much information all the time and a growing reluctance to turn off devices because one fears missing out on something.


Web sites are extremely popular with museums today because they can present much more information to the public than ever possible with a simple printed brochure or wall text (even printed catalogues have space limitations, and are not freely accessible like the Internet). Museum Web sites have incorporated search engines for their on-line collections databases, where by typing in a few words, users can access thousands of images and descriptive information (metadata), categorized in a number of ways as we have seen such as tagging. New Web 2.0 technologies give audiences more authority and control by empowering them with calls for participation and tools to catalogue works of art based on personal preferences.

The more museums engage with the larger global public (both experts and non-experts) through the Internet, the more they become aware of their public nature. Yet despite this public nature being based on legal or financial stipulations, museums still remain elite institutions that value their priceless objects, their highly educated staff, and their scholarly research and curatorial programming; they value control and authority (not necessarily a bad thing). How well audiences are able to navigate the diverse array of interpretive tools within the physical museum, and how well they are able to access museum content on-line will determine not only the extent to which one participates, shares and creates, but fundamentally it will determine the quality of the museum experience (virtual or physical). Museums strive to be popular and reliable sources of education, study, and enjoyment for their communities, and as such, they must not only provide public access (virtual and physical), but they must also consider the implications of this potential excess of information, choices, and opportunities as facilitated by new digital technologies within our knowledge cultures, and the role that they all play in this ongoing societal transformation.

It may seem an overworked matter, but the relation of the physical object to the virtual image remains critical for many reasons, touching on issues of preservation, stewardship, image quality, revenue, and legal policies. As long-time repositories of objects, museums have shifted to being repositories of knowledge in this information age today (Marty, Rayward & Twidale, 2003; Hooper-Greenhill, 1992). Objects are static, but information is constantly changing, a reflection of not just the past but of the dynamic present and future. Our next posting will discuss further examples of on-line museum experiences, and how they also raise many of these poignant issues and more.


Baca, M. (Ed.). (2002). Introduction to art image access: Issues, tools, standards, strategies[Electronic version]. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Trust.

Berwick, C. (2007, October). Nonsmoking capricorn museum seeks networking, dating, serious relationships, friends. ARTnews, 194-197. Castells, M. (2001). The Internet galaxy. New York: Oxford University Press. Castells, M. (n.d.). Creatividad, arte y comunicación en la cultura de la virtualidad real [Creativity, art and communication in the culture of the real virtuality]. Unpublished personal notes for a conference.

Chun, S., Cherry, R., Hiwiller, D., Trant, J., & Wyman, B. (2006). Steve museum: An ongoing experiment in social tagging, folksonomy, and museums. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (Eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Dunn, H. (2000, September). Collection level description – the museum perspective. D-Lib Magazine, 6.

Filippini-Fantoni, S., Antenna Audio Ltd., & Bowen, J. (2007). Bookmarking in museums: Extending the museum experience beyond the visit? In J. Trant and D. Bearman (Eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics.

Galloway, P. (2004). Preservation of digital objects. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 38, 549-590.

Green, T. (2009, February 4). The collection catalogue is dead, long live the catalogue. Message posted to Guy, M., & Tonkin, E. (2006, January). Folksonomies: Tidying up Tags? D-Lib Magazine, 12.

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Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: The Penguin Group.

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Parry, R., Ortiz-Williams, M., & Sawyer, A. (2007, March). How shall we label our exhibit today? Applying the principles of on-line publishing to an on-site exhibition. In J. Trant & D. Bearman (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2003: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics.

Rainie, L. (2007). 28% of online Americans have used the Internet to tag content. Forget Dewey and his decimals, Internet users are revolutionizing the way we classify information – and make sense of it [Electronic version]. Washington, DC: The Pew Research Center.

Rifkin, J. (2000). The age of access. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

Schneider, A. (2007). L. A. art online: Learning from the Getty’s electronic cataloguing initiative [Electronic version]. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Trust.

Trant, J. (2009). Tagging, folksonomy and art museums: Results of’s research. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics.

Trant, J., Bearman, D., & Chun, S. (2007) The eye of the beholder: and social tagging of museum collections. In J. Trant & D. Bearman (Eds.), International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics.

Trant, J., & Wyman, B. (2006). Investigating social tagging and folksonomy in art museums with Paper presented at the World Wide Web Conference, Edinburgh, UK.


Conference of the International Committee for Documentation of the International Council of Museums –

Consortium for the Computer Interchange of Museum Information (CIMI) –*/ (archived pages from its original Web site)

Getty’s Art and Architecture Thesaurus Online (AAT) –

Museum Computer Network (MCN) –

Museum Documentation Association (MDA), Cambridge, England Museum Domain Management Association (MuseDoma) –

Museum Educational Site Licensing Project (MESL) – (1995-1997 archives)

NMC Pachyderm Conference, Dallas, TX – (Susan Chun, Opening Plenary Speech, 2007 –

WebWise Conference on Stewardship in the Digital Age (Institute of Museum and Library Services).  The 2009 conference can be reviewed at: