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“Information can now be made globally available, in an unlimited number of perfect copies, at zero marginal cost.”
Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus, 2010

In April 2010 I attended a session at the Museums and the Web conference that opened up new perspectives for our efforts to promote openness and sharing in Denmark. Under the headline “Museum Commons”, Rich Cherry from the Balboa Park Online Collaborative and Michael Edson from the Smithsonian Institution spoke about collaboration between different institutions, based on open digitised collections.*35 [41] As head of a Danish pilot project that had discovered how museums hold back the potentials inherent in their own collections, and working towards introducing a new practice for the free exchange of digitised images, it was a revelation to hear colleagues from major institutions abroad address that very same subject and give it an overarching designation: A commons.

A “commons” designates a shared resource to which the people of a community all contribute and have free access, for instance to public parks such as Clapham Common or Uxbridge Common, which are just two of the nearly one hundred commons in the London area. [42] Due to the Internet, the commons concept is spreading within the GLAM sector. Originally, ‘commons’ were natural resources that were cared for and accessed by a small community – such as shared fields for grazing, or a village well. In the digital era, new branches have shot forth from the commons concept in the form of open data, open source code, and the Internet these are shared digital resources may use and contribute to. Within the cultural sector the digitisation of vast collections of artworks in the public domain, combined with the Internet’s scope for making these collections accessible worldwide, has given rise to a new principle within the GLAM sector: That digitised resources should be set free as a cultural commons – a cultural quarry where users across the world can seek out and find building blocks for their own personal learning and development, and for their professional and creative work – because by rights the works belong to the public, and because this is the most efficient and sustainable way for the GLAM sector to fulfil its mission. As part of a commons our collections and knowledge can gain a wider reach, and have a real impact and value for millions of people in their everyday lives. [43]

[43] Jill Cousins at the Europeana Annual General Meeting in Berlin, December 2012. Europeana, the common access point to digitised European cultural heritage, is working on establishing a framework for a European cultural commons. Read more in Jill Cousin’s article p. 132 ff. Also see “Culture Must Always Be a Commons” by Nick Poole, CEO of the British Collections Trust and leader of the work group behind the Europeana Culture Commons initiative: Europeana’s definition of a cultural commons is based on Elinor Oström and Charlotte Hess’ research and Michael Edson’s set of criteria for a commons:
CC BY 4.0 Merete Sanderhoff.

As far as the Danish pilot project on free image sharing was concerned, we were particularly stirred and inspired by the Smithsonian Commons project, which aimed to transform the world’s largest cultural institution’s digitised collections into a commons that the public could freely use for research, learning, creativity, and innovation. That idea gave our own project new nourishment. [44] The Smithsonian Commons project was underpinned by a very clear principle: free and unhindered access to digitised collections should not be restricted to professionals within the GLAM and education sector; it should be given to the general public too; to the people who pay for the day-to-day operation of our institutions and who we are here to serve. The Internet and digitisation makes this possible. But something is holding us back.

The pilot project on image sharing had taught us that our own traditions for image licensing had become a roadblock that prevented us from fully utilising the potential inherent in our digitised collections. In order to discuss this issue – and to put free image sharing on the agenda within the Danish GLAM sector – I joined forces with The Danish Association of Museums (ODM) to launch the seminar Sharing is Caring. The title was not only chosen because it is easy to remember. The main message of the seminar is that to share digitised cultural heritage is a palpable way to care about it. When shared freely in digital formats, cultural heritage dramatically increases its use value, allowing users to participate in defining and shaping how and where heritage objects and information can be used. By opening up and sharing our digital resources, we safeguard their relevance and value – not least to new generations of users.*37 ODM had shared interests in making the results of the pilot project more widely known, and in supporting knowledge sharing across institutions on common digital challenges. Colleagues from the DR archives, in charge of the Danish Cultural Heritage project, signed up as co-organisers*38

The organisers agreed that the seminar should do more than simply present and discuss the findings from the Danish pilot project on free image sharing. Our knowledge about the subject, and the inspiration to change our institutions and internal policies, came from outside. By inviting international pioneers in the field of accessibility to cultural heritage we wanted to learn from those institutions who were leading the way towards truly embracing the potential of the digital age. Therefore, it was a major asset for us to have Michael Edson, the person responsible for the Smithsonian Commons project, accept our invitation to deliver the keynote at the first Sharing is Caring seminar in 2011. [45]

The seminar was international in scope and conducted in English. Despite regional and national differences across the GLAM sector the Internet has brought us closer together, creating a growing awareness that the same global technological trends and consumption patterns affect how we work, and the ways in which we interact with the world.

[45] Michael Edson during a debate at Sharing is Caring 2011 which took place in the red Studio 4 in the DR Concert Hall. See Michael Edson’s presentation from the seminar in 2011 and his article p. 12 ff.
CC BY 2.0 Lars Lundqvist.

We hoped that the event would bring together the Danish GLAM sector for an informative and enlightening day where the potentials and challenges inherent in opening up access to our digital resources could be discussed, and give rise to a new shared awareness for this professional community. The first seminar in 2011 attracted a large number of participants from all over Denmark, from institutions large and small, from museums, libraries, archives, the education sector, and the Wikipedia community. The fact that Sharing is Caring also attracted participants from other Nordic countries served to highlight the fact that we had brought up a subject that was relevant across a range of institutional and national borders, and that we had a mutual interest in co-operating on developing the cultural sector of the 21st century.

Sharing is Caring 2011 had a focus on visions and technologies. [46] How do we prepare our collections for the digital age? And what are the ethical arguments in favour of introducing openness and sharing as cornerstones of contemporary museum practice? We were introduced to the Creative Commons licences, the principles behind an API (Application Programming Interface), and to why digitised cultural heritage is better off being shared and re-used than being kept firmly locked away. [47] The subsequent evaluation told us that we had succeeded in putting sharing and openness firmly on the agenda within the Danish GLAM sector. There was evident interest in moving on from talking about it to taking specific action. Equally evident was the need for a regular and recurring forum for discussing and sharing lessons learned about open standards. *39

[48] Shelley Bernstein at Sharing is Caring 2012, the Foyer Stage in the DR Concert Hall. See Shelley Bernstein’s article p. 186 ff.
CC BY 2.0 Merete Sanderhoff.

The 2011 seminar dealt with visions, principles, and technical platforms. [48] In 2012, prompted by responses to the first seminar, we addressed the realities of day-to-day work. As a result, Sharing is Caring 2012 was given the headline “Let’s Get Real!” and presented examples of specific efforts, focusing on the challenges and lessons that arise when we open up and share our digitised resources and the authority to address and engage with it. Shelley Bernstein from Brooklyn Museum delivered one of the keynotes. Her pioneering work on user involvement pertaining to the museum’s exhibitions and collections has inspired colleagues worldwide. At the seminar she presented the tangible results of the Brooklyn Museum’s most recent project – GO: a community-curated open studio project – where local Brooklyn citizens had been deeply involved in suggesting and selecting artists for an exhibition at the museum.

Just as Michael Edson had delivered the reasoning behind a new OpenGLAM mindset in 2011, Shelley Bernstein’s contribution in 2012 provided a compelling case study on how to move from thought to action.


*36  Balboa Park Online Collaborative:
Smithsonian Commons:

*37  The concept for the seminar was established in co-operation with colleagues from the Danish GLAM sector during a brainstorming session held in July 2011 at the National Museum of Denmark. At the beginning the seminar was entitled “Kulturarv uden grænser” (“Cultural Heritage Without Borders”), but when we later decided to hold the seminar in English, I suggested “Sharing is Caring” as the overall title.

*38  In 2011 the Sharing is Caring seminar was held in Studio 4 in DR Koncerthuset, a space capable of accommodating 150 people. When we staged the event again in 2012 we had to relocate to the Foyer Stage in Koncerthuset to accommodate the total of 220 participants.

*39  Two trends were particularly conspicuous in the participants’ evaluation of the seminar: One was that the seminar had created fertile ground for greater openness and co-operation within the Danish GLAM sector, and the other was that there was a great need for sharing knowledge and discussing specific lessons learned on how to share digitised content. This comment, made by one of the seminar participants, sums up the two main trends: “...the focus was much on platforms and less on content, much on servers and databases and little about how to give the audience another and a greater experience – but I felt that it is just a start and the positive atmosphere tells me that content and audience are matters to come – I hope to have this seminar each year to create valuable synergies among GLAMs.” SMK, ODM, and DR have subsequently worked to make the seminar a regular annual event, and Sharing is Caring 2014 is currently being planned in collaboration with MMEx (a center for digital museum practice based in Aaarhus)

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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