After open access

What happens to a museum after it has embraced open access policies? In summer 2018, Birmingham Museums Trust in the UK embraced open access policies for its digitised public domain collections. Two years on, I spoke with Linda Spurdle to see what happened next. This is a transcript of our conversation.

Douglas: Hi, Linda! In preparation for this conversation, I asked the Open GLAM community on Twitter what they wanted to know about what happens after a GLAM has gone open. So let’s kick off.

Ruth Mallalieu asked, “How did it all start?”

Linda: I’ve been working in museums for a long time now. When I was brought in to do a digitisation project, I remember thinking how odd it was that people were using public funding to digitise objects and produce images — and yet, the internal thinking was that the images were like the objects and they shouldn’t be shared. That’s really strange, isn’t it?

I’m a bit of a geek so I’ve always enjoyed digitising collections, seeing them go online and people using them, often in unexpected ways. To me, that’s one of the joys of things being online. But in the museum world that is often frowned upon. At Birmingham Museums we talked about this quite a bit, but it seemed like it was never going to change.

We started “loosening up” when we began using Flickr, relaxing the image rights and saying, “Yes, you can do this but non-commercially”. It was a “let’s test it and see” approach. But we still had an image library (within the museum’s commercial division) and the focus was still to make as much money as possible.

I think the key change happened in 2012, when Birmingham City Council made us an independent charitable trust. We’re actually quite a young institution. So much has changed over the last eight years. The biggest change, in my opinion, that the risk aversion has gone. When you’re part of the council, risk hangs over your head.

Looking back, Ellen McAdam coming in as director (she recently retired) was a spark for change. I remember Andy Mabbett from Wikipedia had come in to speak with Ellen, and she said to me afterwards, “I’ve been talking to this man from Wikipedia and he wants us to release all of our images.”. And we were, like, “Yes, why don’t we? Seems like a good idea.”

At that time, more than anything else it was about academic use. Ellen felt that although we had this vast collection in Birmingham, probably one of the best city museums in the country, it was under researched and people just didn’t know enough about it. I think one of the reasons for this was that people couldn’t really see our images. Having a kind of wall up that hindered people seeing our online collections certainly didn’t help.

When the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations arrived in 2015, it really shifted the conversation about our aims as a charitable institution — “Isn’t it right to that we do what we say we do, reflect Birmingham to the world, and the world to Birmingham? Our audience isn’t only locally in Birmingham. We want to share things worldwide; the benefits should be global.” It wasn’t one thing, it was like a snowball of things. Things kept happening one after another to support the decision to open access. The last hurdle was that, during a restructure, the picture librarian left the commercial team to come over to my digital team, in a new role that was much more about engagement and supporting other people within the museum, like curatorial.

Panel of Wall Tiles by William De Morgan, 1882–1907. Birmingham Museums Trust, CC0

Douglas: Sailesh Patnaik and Sebaastian ter Burg asked if the Trust had any anxieties about going open. It sounds like your director was on board, but was there any internal reluctance? If so, did any of those anxieties turn out to be true, and how were they managed?

Linda: I think it was mostly the commercial department that was worried, that maybe people would suddenly make lots of products or put images on T-shirts, which is all fine. There was this idea that we were going to lose lots of money or that other people were going to make tons of money. The other worry — and it’s one that comes up again and again — was that, “We may not be making a lot of money from this now, but in the future something’s going to happen that will allow us to do so.” Someday…!

In reality, we were not making a lot of money; image sales had been decreasing for years. There are so many images out there. If people can’t use museum images — and let’s face it, most people are not that aware of them in the first place — they are fairly invisible on the Web. Last year I gave a talk to a group of picture librarians and someone said to me, “But people could use these images for anything!”. Well, yes, that’s the point!

Douglas: Absolutely!

Since going open, what have the main changes in your team’s daily work? Have you noticed that you’re doing more or less of something else?

Linda: Most obviously, our picture librarian doesn’t have to haggle image fees back and forth any more. It had previously taken so much of her time; she would often spend days corresponding with someone about licensing an image, and it could come to nothing in the end. Of course, there are still so many other things to do. Her role has become much more about putting digital images onto our DAMS.

Douglas: Do a lot of people “self-serve” from your website now, searching and downloading images they need?

Linda: Yes. Internally, people are now using the DAMS to source images for projects, and generally becoming more aware of the collections. Naturally, a lot of people who work for us have their own social media accounts and it’s lovely to see them sharing the images too. People are discovering more of what we have, including things I’ve never seen before.

Douglas: That’s great. It’s something of a stereotype that museum curators can be reluctant about open access because they may feel like custodians of the collection and, by extension, images of the collection. Though in my experience, the opposite is sometimes true. What has your experience been?

Linda: They’ve generally been very supportive. Our curators have been really pleased that the profile of our collection has been raised. I think it has also generated more work for them because they’ve received many more enquiries.

Douglas: That’s nice.

Linda: We do have some problematic images. There have been a few conversations about these images but it’s not really been a matter of “remove that image”. I don’t really feel like you can censor things that way because you risk whitewashing an artist who may have said or done unpleasant things.

Douglas: Yes, I tend to agree. Isn’t it part of a museum’s mission to bring things into the light for dialogue and discussion, rather than squirrelling them away?

What has the public feedback been in the local community and among museum visitors?

Linda: Absolutely fantastic, especially as the knowledge of it has grown. One of the real thrills for me is seeing people — for example, older citizens, amateur historians, or students — notice our views of Birmingham and saying, “Wow, look at the amazing detail!” in conversations between themselves. That’s really something else. People are always going to love the Pre-Raphaelites, and you do see a lot of sharing of those images, but I think the fact that there’s this growth in knowledge of Birmingham’s past, based on our images, is so exciting.

About 75% of our staff are furloughed, including most of the curators, so it’s been difficult.

In hindsight, given everything that’s happened this year, the fact that people can now self-serve images from our DAMS has been an unexpected blessing. Without this facility, we would have been snowed under with enquiries.

I’ve seen that some museums have been able to do great online stuff whilst they’ve been closed, but for us, we just haven’t had the people to be able to do that. It’s been hard but one of the advantages of having our images out there is that you can see and encourage other people to use and play with the collections. Looking at the DAMS metrics, the number of people looking and downloading images from there is remarkable. I would never expected that from an old collections website and the Unsplash numbers are just amazing.

Douglas: Effie Kapsalis asked. “Have you been able to realise any partnerships or projects that you couldn’t have done under the old, more restrictive policy?”

There have been a few highlights, like collaborating with Cold War Steve. The project came out of the fact that I had a small amount of money to do remix/hack events. I’d been to a fantastic festival on AI art in Leicester and thought, “Oh, perhaps we should do something like that, put up some money for a competition or a commission. I talked to our contemporary art curator Emalee Bedoes-Davis, who was all for the idea and suggested asking Cold War Steve. I knew him and I loved his work, but I thought there would be no way we could afford to do that. We were lucky, though, because he is from Birmingham, he came to the museum as a boy and he brings his own kids here now. Benny’s Babbies is a celebration of Birmingham and its people.

I don’t know whether you know, but also he releases his images for free — really large versions of his images, which is really important to his art practice. He loved the idea. He plays with images; he takes images and reuses them creatively, so I think he loved the idea that we would encourage people to do too. It all fit together so nicely.

I also loved working with Black Hole Club, which is part of the Birmingham arts organisation
Vivid, for the same project. I guess you could call them emerging young digital artists or something like that. They were fantastic to work with because they were so excited! Like I said earlier, often people don’t even know about museum images. They probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon them so it was wonderful to see what they did with the images. Rosa Francesca has done some amazing things with our collection images, including AI and making our artworks sing!

Douglas: What has the reaction of UK museum peers been to the open access policy? Have people been inspired or — given the conservative copyright culture there –perhaps a little bit threatened?

Linda: Earlier this year my commercial director asked me to go and speak at a picture library event. It felt a bit like going into the lion’s den and the reception was quite hostile at times; people are worried about their jobs so they are naturally defensive. Having said that, some people came up to me afterwards to say that my talk had been really interesting and thought-provoking.

Nobody really knows how much it costs to run a picture library, and it’s often not clear how things are funded.

Douglas: Yes, I agree. The supply-side costs of running a picture library rarely seem to be accounted for in detail, and few museum picture libraries actually turn a profit. It makes you wonder why they persist in running a loss-making service.

Linda: Yes, it’s strange, which brings me back to the idea of protection and control. It seems hard to let go.

Douglas: Control is a hell of a drug!

Linda: Yes. I’ve done a few talks where people have been really interested [in open access]. They say, “Oh, that’s great but we wouldn’t be allowed to do that.” And I think, “Well, we never used to be allowed to do it but we do now!”

Douglas: Maybe that’s where support from the leadership group is so vital. Trying to instigate change from below is rarely rewarding and can be exhausting, right?

Linda: Yes, it can be really hard, and I think it’d be harder this year because of organisations being shut down, and the push to be more commercial or make more money. People are talking about trying to make money from things that haven’t worked before.

Douglas: Liam Wyatt asked, “Can you can say anything about the financial impact of open access?”

Linda: Well, I haven’t got figures for this year. Revenue from images that we sell through a print on demand service hasn’t changed for years, and image [licensing] sales through Bridgeman have been falling year on year for a while. For example, in 2017–18, I guess we were making around £12,000 from image licensing. The first year that we stopped doing that, it dropped by over half but it wasn’t a lot of money to begin with. When you think of the impact open access is having on the people that are using our collections, it’s a different perspective. Looking at the coverage we’ve had in the media, our marketing department estimates that we’ve had £100,000 pounds worth of press coverage. That’s a lot of value for the organisation as a whole.

Douglas: What benefits have you noticed internally?

Linda: We’re a very small team, so when people ask us for research or project assistance, we often don’t have the bandwidth. But a great advantage of our DAM is that we can now say, please help yourself and download our images directly. When Unsplash approached us, we explained that they’d have to do it themselvesand and they were like, “Yes, that’s fine”. Absolutely fantastic! It seemed like a no brainer to work with them, but we hadn’t anticipated the crazy amount of people who would see and download the images. It was a similar sroty with Watercolour World. They have a lot of volunteers working for them and they said, “Can we take all your watercolours off the site?” People being able to help themselves is great.

Douglas: David Haskiya asked, “If you could go back and do all again, is there anything that you would do differently?”

Linda: I wish we had had more resources. I think part of the slowness of it was just that, you know, there are not many us and we’re all doing our same jobs at the same time. I just wish everything could have been a bit faster!

It’s a constant frustration that so little of our huge collection has been digitised. And what has been digitised most is the fine art collection. I would love it if the digitisation was more reflective of our collection.

Douglas: What would your
advice be to other museums (in the UK or elsewhere) that are thinking about going open access?

Linda: What you’re doing has to align with your values and mission. It sounds a bit wishy-washy but it’s true! Because when you’re making arguments for open access, it really has to fit with the bigger picture.Then you should provide ideas or evidence of how you can support these things. Having somebody influential on your side is really helpful too.

I think a lot of people assume that things won’t change. They just think, “It’s always going to be like this”. So it’s important to make people aware of what’s going on elsewhere, and share examples from around the world, which have grown so much now. Also to say, this is the way the world is going and we’re holding back the museum when we don’t move with the times. Museums can be quite closed off spaces.

Douglas: Our last question is from Saskia Scheltjens: “What is your next challenge?”

Linda: Right now I’m wondering about moving through this difficult period, with job losses and so on. Something I would like to see is the assets in our DAM being more reflective of the overall collection, so more digitisation is needed. Of course, we can’t digitise everything but we have some really important things that just aren’t on there.

There is also the conversation we should be having around diversity and colonialism, the [British] Empire and so on. We tackled these issues a little a few years ago, when we did The Past is Now exhibition. For some museums, it has all been about the art, but perhaps there is also avoidance of difficult topics and objects. I’d like us all to be a bit more proactive and a bit braver about what we digitise and share.

Douglas: Yes, I think that responsible open access can help to enable these conversations, but in many cases everything is still very restrictive, and that can reflect poorly on museums.

Linda: Yes. It’s like, “We want to have these conversations, but we only want us to have them.”

Follow Linda on Twitter and explore BMAG’s open access collections.

The interview transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.