Collections Access: Open the Door Wider

Thanks to museum audience engagement expert, Nina Simon, for first posting this opinion piece by C2C team member, Adrienne Berney, in last week’s Museum 2.0 blog.

NC Museum of History 1988.39.4

NC Museum of History 1988.39.4

Followers of Museum 2.0 are well versed in new ideas for audience engagement and committed to opening up their institutions to increase public access. But this is not always the first priority for professionals in the museum field. Some collections stewards, steeped as they are in professional artifact-protection standards, are reluctant to shift toward the more open version of institutional access that engagement advocates promote. Do these two directives and perspectives have to be at odds? Can collections access be a way to entice new audiences?

Recently, several subscribers to the RCAAM (Registrar’s Committee of AAM) listserv posted concerns about professional photographers and museum visitors taking photographs of objects on exhibition. One announced her intention to seek legal recourse against a photographer, and another warned that in the past her institution’s legal council had dissuaded that museum from seeking action. “Unfortunately,” that subscriber advised, there are no legal avenues to stop visitors from photographing objects or images in the public domain in public spaces where photography is allowed.

To me, this seems both discouraging and ungenerous to visitors. I stirred up a debate by raising the question “why not allow access?” I believe the museum field as a whole should do more to encourage reproductions of collection objects and images, regardless of whether reproducers hope for profits. I then encountered strong push-back on the listserv, with one subscriber calling my fitness for my job title, “collections care trainer,” into question. Respondents flexed their protective muscles to limit access to the artifacts they have pledged their professional lives to preserving. I’m listing most of the concerns voiced in that debate so that readers can assess the severity of each obstacle and can help generate ideas for surmounting them, toward a goal of more open collections access.

  • Increased risks for deterioration: most of us are familiar with the agents of deterioration and understand the varying risks to collections materials that access poses, especially as a result of increased handling and light exposure. Digitization can help offer safe access to collections.
  • Staff time: allowing access can be labor intensive for those in charge of collections. Institutions may not want to invest work hours into providing access for visitors who may then turn around and sell reproductions for their own profit. But if collection reproductions are a potential cash cow, then why aren’t more institutions pursuing product creation? Some history museums, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Sandy Springs Museum , have implemented innovative programs inviting artists into storage and galleries to create new works with collection items. But what about the potential creator who happens into an exhibit, gets an idea, and takes a picture? What if objects are already on exhibit and their reproduction involves no additional staff time? Should the museum impose a fee on reproducers or limit their pursuits in other ways? Keep in mind that enforcing limited-access policies requires significant staff time too, along with possible legal fees.
  • Copyright infringements: A large portion of historical collections are in the public domain. The Library of Congress advises collection users to go through a risk assessment process for each image they seek to reproduce. The LOC provides open access as a public service and the user assumes whatever risks may be involved in reproduction. Why can’t all collecting institutions take this position?
  • Misrepresentation of the artifact: I’m not sure what this means, perhaps reproducing only a portion of an artifact or splicing its image with another. If the reproducer includes a reference to the original source, does that offset the concern or increase it? In the case of documents, historians regularly argue about the meanings of various passages. If a scholar misrepresents a document, it’s his/her reputation on the line, rather than the repository’s. Why should museums arbitrate or otherwise limit creative vision?
  • Relatedly, poor quality images of artifacts in collections may harm the reputation of the museum and do a disservice to the original donor. In a footnote in her Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, Malaro mentions that a museum might not want to be listed as the source of an image in certain reproduction applications for fear of appearing to endorse the product or its creator. A risk assessment may help clarify the danger: Is it riskier (in terms of failing to fulfill a museum’s mission) to allow access, with the potential for audiences to generate poor quality products, or riskier to keep tight control over collection materials? Can you think of any cases where a reproduction harmed an institution housing the original?
  • Contractual issues or donor restrictions: These are red flags for placing an artifact on exhibit or an online database. Experts advise museums against accepting restricted donations, and they are rare in history museums. The most likely donor restrictions prescribe access and call for “permanent exhibition.” In addition, some museums have worked with native tribes or other descendant groups to establish access guidelines for sensitive anthropological materials. Do you know of other donor contracts or restrictions (besides copyright) that would allow the display of an artifact and disallow its reproduction?
This image, created by artist Courtney Bellairs by photographing an object in the Sandy Springs Museum collection, was for sale as a limited edition giclee print in the museum's gift shop for the duration of the related exhibition and remains for sale via the artist.

Artist Courtney Bellairs created this image in 2013 by photographing an object in the Sandy Springs Museum collection. It was for sale as a limited edition giclee print in the museum’s gift shop during a related exhibition and remains for sale via the artist.

Given that public and non-profit private institutions hold collections in the public trust, and that a large portion of collections (at least in history museums) are public domain materials, and that most donors give with the expectation of preservation and access for perpetuity, museum professionals should have a wide range to engage the public with collections. Allowing for exceptional cases where limited access would be necessary, can’t most of the above concerns be managed within an over-arching open-access approach to collections?

Without broad access, why should any community or institution go to the trouble and expense of preserving artifacts? Visitation has decreased significantly at historic sites and institutions since the 1980s and yet artifact-featured forms of entertainment like collector reality television shows and auctions have proliferated. Potential audiences feel connections with artifacts, so why don’t they participate in or support collecting institutions more often?  The Rijksmuseum of the Netherlands sets an exciting example by providing high quality collection images online and encouraging product creation. By allowing open access for creative reproduction, I suspect institutions could become more welcoming for those groups, and collections can function more fully as relevant and engaging resources.

How has your institution balanced collection concerns with its efforts to engage audiences? Do you view collections as a problematic juggernaut to avoid, or an indispensable resource base, or both? How can we safely steer the reflexive “no” toward a “probably” and open the door to more collections access?

Thanks to Allison Weiss, Executive Director of the Sandy Springs Museum, John Campbell, Collections Section Chief of the NC Museum of History, and RCAAM listserv respondents for their contributions to this post.
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About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on October 1, 2013, in collections access, collections management and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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