Art lovers rejoiced when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently adopted an open-access policy for its artwork, allowing anyone to download free, high-resolution images of the approximately 375,000 public-domain artworks in the collection.
In granting unrestricted access to its images, the Met joins an open-content movement advancing throughout museums worldwide. Museum administrators aren’t just recognizing the value of reaching a wider audience — they’re embracing open access as an essential aspect of a museum’s mission.
In 2013, then-Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Wayne Clough predicted that the digital revolution might one day allow the public to help design the Smithsonian’s interactive exhibitions.
For instance, he said, “we have lots of implements from Native American tribes, and [the public] may know more about them than we do. … We’d love for them to tell us about those objects.”
Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum introduced open content in 2011, when its curators discovered more than 10,000 low-quality scans of one of the museum’s Vermeer paintings online. In response, the Rijksmuseum made the first of its 300,000 high-res images available for download at no cost.
Several U.S. museums followed the Dutch example:
- The Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
- The National Gallery of Art in Washington.
- The Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut.
- The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
- The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.
- The Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
“As someone who teaches medieval Latin, I have found [the Walters’] online manuscript collection a valuable tool in teaching students about medieval handwriting and illumination,” said Sarah Bond, a professor of classics at the University of Iowa, in Forbes magazine.
The Met shares images of its public-domain artworks in accordance with the Creative Commons Zero, or CC0, designation. (CC0 indicates that no institution claims a copyright on the work in question.) Wikimedia and Pinterest partner with the Met to boost the museum’s digital outreach.
The educational benefits are clear. And if you want to decorate a T-shirt with an image of your favorite Old Masters painting, no problem. The Met and lots of other museums will help you do it.