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Cultural institutions and cultural Open Data

The rise of cultural Open Data

Cultural institutions possess a lot of valuable information. Examples are the collections that cultural institutions manage and the available knowledge about these collections. New technologies have made it possible to expose cultural heritage on digital platforms and in the last few years, an increasing number of cultural institutions digitised their collections. Digitised material from cultural institutions can be re-used to develop, among others: learning and educational content, documentaries, animations and design tools. However, re-use of data is only possible if the digitised data is 'open', which means that end users can re-use and further distribute the data. To re-use cultural data, the material must be 1) digitised (published online) and 2) open (data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone).

Currently, 90% of all the cultural heritage in the world has not been digitised, according to Europeana. And once the material of cultural institutions is digitised, low metadata quality, low resolution of the material, policy and contractual constraints of institutions still stand in the way of wider use and re-use of the digitised materials. From the 10% digitised material, only 34% of the digitised objects are available online and barely 3% of that work is 'open'.


The dilemma cultural institutions face

Cultural institutions all over the world have to answer the following important question for themselves: do the benefits of publishing cultural artefacts in an open way outweigh the concerns?

This article elaborates on the benefits of digitising cultural data and making it openly available, supported by interviews with the Rijksmuseum (the Netherlands) and the Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK) (Denmark). These museums made their collections openly available successfully and shared their experiences.


Benefits of digitising cultural data and making it openly available

A substantial part of all the cultural heritage in the world has not been digitised yet. Much can be done by cultural institutions to boost the digitisation of cultural material. To achieve this, the first step is to provide insights in the benefits of digitising cultural heritage to make organisations aware of the importance of investments in digitisation. The benefits outlined below apply to cultural institutions and people from all over the world who are interested in cultural material, according to Lorna M. Hughes in "Digitizing Collections".

Benefits of digitising cultural heritage

Figure 1 Benefits of digitising cultural heritage


Access for a broader audience

The primary benefit of cultural digitisation is that it provides people across the globe access to collections from various cultural institutions. Digital material can be made available by cultural institutions for a broader audience than only the ones who are able to view the piece physically. According to the Rijksmuseum and the SMK, one of the primary reasons for digitising their collections was the firm belief that the The Rijksmuseum states that especially some smaller institutions still have the following idea of digitisation: "the collection is ours, we take care of it and we are the boss. If you want to re-use the material, you can, but you have to pay for it. People are often surprised when we tell them: we have already let go of this idea. If people hear our story they often see it as an eyeopener. We therefore find it important to bring information to other parties".

Another reason for digitisation of the collection was that re-use of the content has always been an important driver for both museums. The Rijksmuseum mentioned the following about this: "we specifically wanted to digitise our collection in the highest quality possible to make sure people from all over the world can re-use the material for various purposes. In the beginning period, if someone wanted to use one or more of our files, they had to purchase them. However, after a certain period, the decision was made to make the files available for free. We had to answer questions for ourselves such as: 'how do we manage this process of incoming money flows and associated administrative costs?' We decided we did not want to manage this and therefore we choose to let it go and make the files available for free".


Damage prevention of the original copy

Developing a digital copy of a rare or fragile original object can provide access to users while preventing the original from damage. For the British Library, this was the motivation for digitisation a substantive part of their cultural material, for example a manuscript which is too fragile for use by scholars without special permission. The Library made available a high-resolution imaging of the original and created digital images that can be subject to advanced imaging analysis including x-ray photography.


Reunification of collections

By using digital material, gaps in existing collections can be overcome: collaborative digitisation initiatives allow the re-unification of different pieces that belong together. In a lot of cases, material that was originally part of a complete collection is later held in various locations. There is a growing need to present at least a 'digital' sense of what the entire collection would look like. By digitising the collection, materials can be 're-unified' and many projects have been motivated by the idea of 'digitally reuniting' a collection.


Research and education

Finally, digitisation of cultural heritage can have great benefits for education. Several cultural institutions already presented educational 'modules' on their websites, presenting 'packages' of educational material based on their collections. Many museums have been successful in this area, as most institutions have in-house educational departments who are responsible for developing material that can create programs for all levels of digital learners.



Digital heritage plays a crucial role in developing a deeper understanding of the world and can help fuel a booming creative economy and serve educational goals. However, making cultural Open Data available is not happening on a large scale yet. Therefore, to speed up this process, several recommendations can be made:

  • Get in contact with other cultural institutions that are one step ahead in the digitising process and let them inspire you and provide you with new insights.
    According to the SMK, knowledge sharing between several cultural institutions can take institutions to the next level of the digitisation. In 2011, the SMK took the first step in exploring Open Data and open content with other institutions in small pilot projects where SMK invited other Danish museums to digital images sharing projects. Due to these kind of initiatives, from other museums as well, there is a greater awareness in the museum sector around the potential of Open Data.
  • Use each other's infrastructure
    Do not only collaborate for the purpose of knowledge sharing but to use each other's infrastructure as well. Especially larger institutions have the equipment to digitise material. These institutions have established processes for digitisation. And in some cases, this equipment is not used 24/7. The Rijksmuseum thus gives the advice to look where you can use each other's capacities. This also applies to institutions in your direct environment.
  • Start with digitising a small set of items. The situation or material does not have to be 'perfect' yet but make a beginning and go further from here: just make a start.
    The Rijksmuseum gives the following advice: "perfect is the enemy of good". Just start. Start with a small set and see how it feels. See what the reactions are and continue from there. Don't try to get everything in order and think too long about it. Just start small.
  • Make use of other digital platforms than your own and make sure that you are not somehow trying to avoid your collection being used on other platforms. Make sure to see those other platforms as part of you.
    The SMK gives the following example on this topic: one small Danish museum had digital reproductions of their collection, but they did not have a platform themselves to publish them. Instead, they published the collection on Wikimedia Commons and this has hugely increased the use of the collection by many new user groups that they were not in touch with before. This required minimum effort and it is a sound investment if you do not have your own digital platforms to invest in.
  • Include your digital ambitions in your mission statement
    According to the SMK, it is important to formulate a mission/ impact statement to make your ambition more concrete. To do this, first formulate an impact statement and ask the following questions: what do we really want to achieve in society as a museum? What role do we want to play? How do we see our impact? And then reason back from that. Look at your mission statement and see whether it describes the impact you want to have and then, go back one step at the time to think of the output you want in order to achieve that impact. Ask the following questions: what kind of activities do we need to plan to achieve that output? What kind of resources need to be consulted to achieve those activities? By doing this, the ambition becomes more clear and realistic.