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“Learning to swim in a flood of images.”
Larry Friedlander, from the opening address at Museums and the Web 2013

SMK viewed in the digital mirror

When we defined the vision for SMK digital in 2008, we said that we wanted to be a 100 % digital art museum. In hindsight the efforts to integrate digital media, methods, and approaches in SMK’s workflow and mindset has taken the form of a long series of pilot projects, one following the other in steady succession. For SMK the process has been tantamount to basic research, and this research has been accompanied by a growing awareness that a new professional field is emerging, one that is bound to be crucially important for cultural institutions’ wellbeing and impact in the 21st century: Digital museum practice. The question is whether five years of working with SMK digital has made us a fully digital art museum? And whether such a strategy is even desirable? Anne Skovbo, who has worked as digital project manager in SMK digital, has reflected on what we have learned during the project, and her conclusions include the affirmation that sustainable digital museum practice requires what she calls digital management. [80]

Digital management – what does that mean? To put it in simple terms, it means that digital museum practice should be an integrated professional field in its own right, on a par with the museum’s other areas of responsibility, and that an experienced expert should be assigned to manage the area and set professional goals and standards, just as the museum also has a director of collections and research, education, and conservation. In practice, however, it has proved less than simple to introduce digital management. In these years of financial austerity, SMK (like many other state-operated cultural institutions) is facing lower funding, fierce competition for private funds, and increasing political requirements to meet measurable objectives. Nevertheless, in the long run investing in digital management is necessary. As Ross Parry, Senior Lecturer in Museum Studies at Leicester University points out, digital museum practice has held its pilot status for long enough. The cultural heritage sector is ready to venture into more of a theoretical and historically founded practice infused by a methodical stringency in its use of digital media. [81] Among other things this requires thoroughly professional management of the digital endeavours at museums.

One of the main undercurrents in SMK’s development work has been to strike the right balance between innovation and infrastructure. Today we see that the absence of a dedicated digital management has meant that we have often launched exciting innovative projects without realising what they demanded in terms of infrastructure if they were to become fully operational. In other words, the museum’s grand, forward-looking ambitions have not always been tempered by a realistic overview of what it would take to translate them into reality. [82]

Digital museum practice is a new field of work that had not been incorporated into SMK’s strategy and practices before 2008. The DIY method (see [6]) has taken us far. But now we have reached a point where our work with digital media must be professionalised in order for us to increase the scale and sustainability of our initiatives, and give them value that reaches beyond the mainly symbolic. In the wake of five years of pilot efforts we now face a pressing need to measure and document the effect of our work – and adapt it accordingly. In addition to a digital management organisation, the museum will also require a new set of analytical skills that enable us to gather data on the effect of our digital work and learn from this information for our future work.*75

The professional skills required for such work has not been represented on our staff before, but now they are urgently required. This is yet another area where we must fulfil our responsibility as the main museum of art in Denmark, developing tools and guidelines that can benefit the Danish museum scene in general.

Conversely we also see that right from the outset SMK digital defined a set of forward-thinking and viable visions: Being a catalyst for users’ creativity, working with openness and dialogue as fundamental principles, focusing on high-quality, high-resolution images as a particular attraction of an art collection in the digital age. These trends have only grown more pronounced since the launch of SMK digital. For example, we see that the Rijksmuseum’s popular and critically acclaimed new website employs several of the basic principles that were also at the heart of Art Stories: Providing an outlet for the users’ creativity, high-reso- lution zoomable images, images acting as points of entry to the experience, optional texts, layered design, and links to external sites that provide information already available online. The difference is that the Rijksmuseum website presents these trends in a fully realised form, created within the framework of an institu- tion that has achieved a greater level of digital maturity. We find ourselves convinced that our visions are on the right track, but we still need to carry out important preliminary work: Update and consolidate our strategy, build infrastructure, and introduce professional digital management. Such foundations must be in place before we can truly engage in dialogue and interaction with the users and their cognitive surplus.

Wanted: A digital infrastructure

When SMK decided to release a small batch of high-resolution images the museum did not have the technological clout to handle free downloads. All data, images, and information were assembled manually, a process that was extremely time-consuming – particularly in view of the fact that open access has only been provided to such a tiny part of the collection. In spite of the small scale, the project has had a tremendous impact. The results have prompted the SMK management to pass the decision to release high-resolution images of all SMK works in the public domain. An open access policy for SMK is being developed, and the release of larger batches of images for free download will be made on an ongoing basis, as we build the necessary infrastructure and digitise more parts our collections. Almost 60% of the museum’s paintings and sculptures are in the public domain, as is more than 80% of the collection of prints and drawings, and 100 % of the plaster cast collection. In other words it is possible to release a major part of SMK’s digitised collections for unrestricted use and sharing. However, doing so will require investments in a viable and sustainable digital infrastructure that automates and rationalises the museum’s workflows, and optimizes searchability of the digitised collections.*76

The results we have to show as yet are only ripples on the surface. SMK digital has opened our eyes to the fact that real innovation resides in the construction of a digital infrastructure. Building a digital infrastructure will entail radical changes in the ways we think and work; changes that involve open access and standards in all aspects of our practice: When we collect and catalogue art, users can help select, index, and describe the works. When we develop open source database systems, other institutions and developers can benefit from our work. When we make our research and conservation processes transparent we pave the way for exchanging knowledge with the outside world – with professional peers and the general public alike.*77 And when there is unrestricted access to our collections we move away from one-way to dialogic communication that can encourage users to express their own views and creativity. We create a digital museum mindset.

Quite ironically, a crucial aspect of such a mindset rests on the fact that the digital element should often remain invisible. Digital technologies, tools, and platforms used in museum settings should not necessarily call attention to themselves; often, they should discreetly and seamlessly support the experience of the content they present: A fully integrated web that expands and enriches the users’ art experience and enables them to act. [83] Our collections and knowledge remain among our most important assets: they must be preserved, ensuring their continued relevance, and we do so by sharing them. In this sense the vision of being a fully digital art museum still makes perfect sense today.

GLAM success in the digital age

In the winter of 2012-13 SMK once again brought together a panel of international advisors from around the world to attend a number of in-house workshops. The panel represented some of the world’s leading cultural institutions: the Rijksmuseum, Tate, Brooklyn Museum and MoMA.*78 These institutions have all made a digital mindset part of their DNA. Their success in the digital age is based on long-term investments that specifically aim at building a digital infrastructure and at translating their collections and knowledge into flexible digital formats. They have often benefited from substantial private funding when building their digital foundations. And they have benefited from strong and consistent digital management structures, or highly qualified employees within the digital field who have the authority to make decisions. These things pay off. [84]


Jesse Ringham, Tate and Allegra Burnette, MoMA  CC BY 4.0 Merete Sanderhoff

Jesse Ringham, Tate and Allegra Burnette, MoMA
CC BY 4.0 Merete Sanderhoff

Shelley Bernstein, Brooklyn Museum.  CC BY 4.0 Merete Sanderhoff.

Shelley Bernstein, Brooklyn Museum. 
CC BY 4.0 Merete Sanderhoff.

As a result of these workshops, SMK is currently redefining a number of fundamental principles for our future digital efforts. These include that

  • We are data-driven in our work
  • We use open source technology
  • We carry out in-house development
  • We work in an agile manner*79
  • We partner with other institutions to carry out joint development work
  • We put well-defined user needs at the basis of our development work
  • We involve users in the development process
  • We provide unrestricted access to non-copyrighted data and images
  • We facilitate sharing, reuse, sampling, and remixes of our digitised resources

At the time when SMK introduced open access to its images, no major studies on the effect of unrestricted access to data and digitised image collections were available. Only now do we begin to see documentation describing the impact of an open access policy – and consistent methods for measuring this impact. A comparative study from 2013, supported by The Mellon Foundation and carried out by Kristin Kelly, examines the impact of open licensing of digitised art collections among 11 British and American museums that have introduced varying forms of open access. The study provides a detailed account of the different interpretations of and rationales behind open access policies, among others at Yale University, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The National Gallery of Art in Washington – all of which have inspired SMK’s decision to choose an open licence. The study affirms that the introduction of an open access policy is based on each museum’s mission to promote awareness and use of public collections, that facilitating user-friendly access to digitised image collections and data requires investments in digital infrastructure, and finally that the museums which have introduced open access to their digitised collections have concluded that there is no reason to be concerned about the risk of abuse or damage to the integrity of the works. Rather, the study suggests that a policy of open access leads to greater awareness of – and positive attention to – the museums, their collections, and their brands. [85]

Documentation of the effects of an open access policy and open licensing is now beginning to arrive from several different quar- ters. Entities such as Europeana, the UK Collections Trust, and the OpenGLAM network are collecting data that show the effects of opening up, and are also identifying viable parameters on how to measure the value of such openness – all in order to encourage support for joint, co-ordinated efforts that promote universal access to digitised culture. [86] Simon Tanner, whose 2004 study on image licensing in US museums provided important documentation of the fact that museums’ traditional photo sales are unprofitable, published The Balanced Value Impact Model in 2012. The model offers a set of tried-and-tested methods for measuring the impact of digitisation and digital media presence on cultural heritage institutions. [87] These studies view the value of access to, and use of, digital culture from a wider perspective than the purely profit-oriented. According to these sources, the impact of open access policies should be regarded from a more holistic point of view and be measured using parameters such as greater awareness of the museums’ collections, the circulation and usage of these collections on non-institutional platforms (so-called “earned media”)*80, and the long-term effects of the greater awareness of and usage of digitised collections – for instance in terms of the number of visitors attracted to the institutions in question, and the general public’s attitude to the value and relevance of cultural heritage and museums.

Parameters such as these are undoubtedly important when assessing the impact of digital presence in the cultural heritage sector. However, museums also still need to generate revenue and attract funding in order to maintain their levels of activity and high quality standards. A major challenge for the cultural heritage sector in the coming years – as open licensing looks poised to become the norm and displace traditional photo sales – will be to develop new, viable business models based on open access to digitised resources. More evidence is needed of which digitally founded business models return real value for cultural heritage institutions as well as for their users. There are ideas in abundance about print on demand, freemium and micro-payment models, but as yet there are no obvious examples of best practices for the museum world to adopt. Even the Rijksmuseum, whose new website is a resounding success, has not yet seen strong sales of ‘on demand’ products such as postcards, posters, and customised, framed detailed views of artworks based on the images available in the Rijksstudio.*81 Nevertheless, the Rijksmuseum itself regards its open access policy as a success, even if they have not yet cracked the code of developing profitable ‘on demand’ business models to supplement their free services. Since the launch of the new museum website, which focuses attention on the large body of images with unrestricted access, traffic on the website and the time spent by each visitor has increased greatly. Indeed, how is it even possible to calculate the value of the greater exposure and positive press generated by the museum’s decision to open up their collections? How does one establish the monetary value of the greater awareness of the museum’s artworks and exhibits among people who would not normally visit the museum, but who come across their collections on blogs, social media, in Wikipedia articles, online videos, and so on? [88]

Not every museum has a collection as famous as that of the Rijksmuseum; a collection capable of generating a great deal of international attention in itself. Even so, any and every cultural heritage institution will have collections which could, by being accessible, potentially become part of the Internet’s long tail, finding new, interested users in the most unlikely places and becoming of value to them. Each individual institution must carry out their own analyses of the financial consequences of changing their existing image and data licensing policies before transitioning to open access. However, at this point there are strong indications that only few museums will lose profits on abandoning their conventional business models while they are likely to gain major advantages by providing open access to their digitised collections – specifically in the form of exposure, extra traffic, and new forms of usage that create value for users.

The future is now: Co-ordinated efforts.

When speaking about technological developments many try to gaze into the crystal ball in an attempt at divining what the future holds for the cultural sector. But that’s not necessary. The future is now. The Internet and digital media have already changed our field of operation. User behaviour has changed. Expectations of what cultural institutions have to offer, where they can be approached, and how their content can be used are different now compared to the decades that went before. To paraphrase Michael Edson, what we need to do now is not to prepare ourselves for the future, but for the present.*82 We must learn to swim in a flood of images.

We have a well-established tradition for responding to political guidelines pertainting to our research, conservation, presentation and education activities. In recent years we are facing increasing requirements concerning digital accessibility, inclusion, and collaboration with other institutions in Denmark and abroad.*83 Grassroots organisations such as Creative Commons, OpenGLAM, and Wikipedia work across professional and national boundaries to establish open standards as the norm for cultural institutions.*84

It is this kind of culture, one that aims for collaboration and coordinated efforts, that SMK has sought to nurture in Denmark in recent years. A wide range of shared challenges await the cultural heritage sector, and we wish to continue to work with other institutions on developing shared and sustainable solutions. Examples of such work include:

  • Joint efforts to make Denmark’s cultural heritage – and research within the field – available on Wikipedia
  • Joint efforts to promote user tagging of Danish cultural heritage collections to enable user-friendly cross-collection search
  • Joint development of national technical platforms, for mobile presentation and multimedia productions
  • Co-ordinated collection of data on user behaviour across institutional borders
  • Co-ordinated negotiations on copyright, and the introduction of open access as the standard policy for digitised material in the public domain*85

There is plenty of work to do. However, pilot projects such as and HintMe where Danish museums build shared technical platforms and introduce open access to their images, suggest that it is possible to establish shared standards for openness when we work together to pave the way for new practices within our sector. The way ahead is to professionalize digital museum practice, co-ordinate efforts among similar institutions, jointly build flexible and sustainable technological solutions, contribute to a digital cultural heritage commons, and work together on incorporating the users’ knowledge and creativity to enrich our shared cultural heritage.

Afterword: Sharing is caring

In April 2013, at the conference Open Cultural Heritage Data in the Nordic Countries, Tim Sherratt from The National Library of Australia made a beautiful presentation of the value of open access to cultural heritage data. Sherratt is a trained historian, but for the last twenty years he has taught himself computer programming in order to be able to hack sealed archives and databases and make new and unexpected mashups of their data. In 2013, this independent practice of remixing digitised cultural heritage data in innovative ways has won him the position as head of Trove, the Australian National Library’s discovery service.*86

In his presentation, Sherratt very elegantly demonstrated how the free and unrestricted access to search across vast digitised cultural heritage collections and to build new constellations of data, knowledge and visual materials, makes it possible to challenge the canon of history and retell history in new ways that bring overlooked or repressed aspects out in the open. To me, this endeavour clearly resonated with the vision behind Art Stories. Sherratt’s closing point was that there is power embedded and invested in every data file, in every single record and omission, in all curating and updating; in everything that we, who work in the cultural sector, do in our day-to-day practice. Providing open access to digitised materials is one way of letting power seep out and trickle down, becoming shared with the general public. According to Sherratt this is a way of safeguarding the democratic society with which our institutions are so inextricably linked. Let us open up our collections so they can truly reach out and expand peoples’ understanding of the world that we all share, and care about. [89]

Peter Hansen, Playing Children. Enghave Square, 1907-08. KMS2075. CC BY 3.0 SMK

[89] One of the speakers at Open Cultural heritage Data in the Nordic Countries, Kristin Lyng from the Meteorological Institute of Norway which has released meteo- rological data for public use, had a striking way of phrasing the need for opening up data: “Freeing data can be compared to letting your child go out and play in the playground. You’re letting go of control, but you know that it’s best for your child to be able to play out in the open.”
Peter Hansen, Playing Children. Enghave Square, 1907-08. KMS2075. CC BY 3.0 SMK


*75 The need for measuring the effect of museum computing and statistical analyses of the field (web metrics) is a central theme at leading international digital museum conferences these years, e.g. Museums and the Web, Museum Computer Network, and MuseumNext.

*76  The digital infrastructure we are currently planning will include a Digital Asset Management system – a multimedia database that will be integrated with the museum’s collection database – as well as embedding machine-readable data in image files to ensure easy and correct credits, tagging images with keywords in order to optimise searches, developing a user-friendly search function for the collections, developing an interface that allows for free downloads of high-resolution image files from the multimedia database, and an open API that provides access to downloading the museum’s complete non-copyrighted data and image collections.

*77 SMK’s Conservation Department is a trailblazer within the field: its employees regularly blog about their ongoing projects, post video footage demonstrating their work, and are very active on social media, discussing various issues and exchanging know-how and observations with interested parties throughout the world. Http://

*78 The international advisors at SMK’s internal workshops were Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology, Brooklyn Museum, Lizzy Jongma, Data Manager, Rijksmuseum, James Davis, Program Manager with the Google Art Project and former project manager of Tate Art & Artists, Jesse Ringham, Digital Communications Manager, Tate, and Allegra Burnette, Director of Digital Media, MoMA. Concurrently with the internal workshops SMK also staged a number of public lectures where representatives from the Danish cultural heritage sector could take part and learn from the know-how accumulated by our colleagues from abroad.

*79 Agile development is a designation used for a form of project management where you work iteratively and incrementally in brief, selfcontained sequences or sprints, each of them leading to the completion of specific deliverables before the overall project is ultimately concluded. This makes it possible to take into account any changes in conditions and requirements arising over the course of the project, adapting the process and results dynamically during its progress This form of flexible project management is currently becoming increasingly popular within the cultural heritage sector and has been used for the development of e.g. Tate’s Art & Artists Rijksmuseum’s new website (Davis, 2011; Gorgels, 2013).

*80  Gorgels, 2013.

*81  In Gorgels’ own words, “The only aspect that has not been in line with expectations is the number of orders for products. Perhaps users find the ordering process too complex, or are not yet satisfied with their own creative efforts.” (Gorgels, 2013)

*82  Edson, 2011-12.

*83  I am referring to e.g. the guidelines pertaining to the funding allocated for presentation/education and digitisation by the Danish Agency for Culture and the Danish Ministry of Culture, as well as to the increasing demands requiring Danish culture institutions to supply data and digitised collections to Europeana.

*84  For example, the Wikipedia project GLAM-Wiki supports cultural institutions that wish to enrich Wikipedia with their knowledge and materials. GLAM-Wiki offers to facilitate such work on the basis of the principle that this will benefit everyone: the GLAM institutions, Wikipedia, and – very importantly – the users. See

*85 Other countries provide excellent examples that might usefully be emulated, e.g. the BBC-led initiative Your Paintings, which facilitates user tagging of works in national collections, TAP, a free open source tool for developing guided tours at museums, developed by the Indianapolis Museum of ART and not least Europeana’s data exchange agreement, which transfers all aggregated cultural heritage data to the public domain.

*86 Trove
An introduction to Tim Sherratt’s work Sherratt’s talk is available on video via this link

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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