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The Rijksmuseum is home to masterpieces like Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” one of many images the museum has made available to the public online.

Peter Dejong • Associated Press,

Museums mull public use of online images

  • Article by: NINA SIEGAL
  • New York Times
  • July 17, 2013 - 2:03 PM

– Many museums post their collections online, but the Rijksmuseum has taken the unusual step of offering downloads of high-resolution images at no cost, encouraging the public to copy and transform its artworks into stationery, T-shirts, tattoos, plates or even toilet paper.

The museum, whose collection includes masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Mondrian and Van Gogh, has already made images of 125,000 of its works available through Rijksstudio, an interactive section of its website. The staff’s goal is to add 40,000 images a year until the entire collection of 1 million artworks spanning eight centuries is available, said Taco Dibbits, the director of collections at the Rijksmuseum.

“We’re a public institution, and so the art and objects we have are, in a way, everyone’s property,” Dibbits said. “With the Internet, it’s so difficult to control your copyright or use of images that we decided we’d rather people use a very good high-resolution image of the ‘Milkmaid’ from the Rijksmuseum rather than using a very bad reproduction,” he said, referring to that Vermeer painting from around 1660.

Until recently, museums had been highly protective of good-quality digital versions of their artworks, making them available only upon request to members of the press or to art historians and scholars, with restrictions on how they could be used. The reasons are manifold: protecting copyrights, maintaining control over potentially lucrative museum revenues from posters or souvenirs and preventing thieves or forgers from making convincing copies.

There is also the fear, as described by the critic Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that a piece can lose its aura, or authenticity, when it is reproduced so often that it becomes too familiar — cheapening the “Mona Lisa,” for instance.

In recent years, though, as the Google Art Project has begun to amass a global archive of images with the cooperation of museums and the Internet has made it impossible to stem the tide of low-quality reproductions, institutions are rethinking their strategy.

The Rijksmuseum has been able to put its works online more quickly because much of its collection predates Dutch copyright laws and its staff had an opportunity to digitize the collection when the museum was closed for renovations. (It reopened last month after a 10-year makeover.) The digitization project was financed by a million-euro ($1.29 million) grant from the national BankGiro lottery, which provides money for the arts and cultural groups.

“The old masters were born and died before we even had copyright law in the Netherlands,” said Paul Keller, a copyright adviser for the Amsterdam-based institute Kennisland, who advised the Rijksmuseum on the plan. “For modern art museums, what they’re doing would be largely impossible.”

Rijksstudio has logged more than 2.17 million visitors since its service went online in October, and around 200,000 people have downloaded images.

Rijksstudio is unusual among digital museum projects in that it provides online tools for manipulating, changing or clipping the images, said Jennifer Trant, a co-founder of Museums on the Web. The online studio asks people to refrain from commercial uses and sells images of an even higher resolution that are more suitable for that purpose.

For the most part, Keller and Trant said, museums still tend to view their online collections as a kind of virtual catalog for the visitor rather than a bank of images that can be put to other uses.

But Dibbits of the Rijksmuseum maintains that letting the public take control of the images is crucial to encouraging people to commune with the collection. “The action of actually working with an image, clipping it out and paying attention to the very small details makes you remember it,” he said.

Are there limits to how the Rijksmuseum’s masterpieces can be adapted? Not many, Dibbits suggested.

“If they want to have a Vermeer on their toilet paper, I’d rather have a very high-quality image of Vermeer on toilet paper than a very bad reproduction,” he said.

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