Dutch Museum Takes on Daunting Digitization Project

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Old photo digitization is a project that many of the world’s major museums have embarked on. After all, over 3.5 trillion photos have been snapped since the invention of the photograph 186 years ago. The Rijksmuseum, located in Amsterdam, is no different — but what sets their digitization project apart is that it may be the single most ambitious and exhaustive effort ever.By 2020, the museum has its sights on digitizing all one million objects in its impressive collection, which contains prized items such as masterpieces from Rembrandt and Vermeer, Delft pottery, silk brocade gowns, and matchlock muskets. So far, 25% of the museum’s collection — including most of its paintings — is currently available for high-resolution download from the museum’s website, with new uploads added nearly every day.

In addition to the sheer size of the Rijksmuseum’s collection of historical objects, what distinguishes their digitization program is a very liberal approach to copyright laws. Works are assigned a Creative Common’s status of “0”, which allows them to be modified and disseminated in almost any way. Some images have been exploited for commercial use — downloaded art has been used for iPhone cases, scarves, and even a tattoo.

The museum, however, encourages patrons to experiment, and hosts creative contests that offer free .tiff files to those who want to republish images in larger formats.

“It’s really a fundamental belief of the management at the Rijksmuseum that sharing is the new having,” explained Cecile van der Harten, the head of the museum’s image department, who has dedicated the past 10 years leading the digitization project. “It means you want to try do anything and everything to let people enjoy the collection, whether it’s live or online.”

While some view this perspective as altruistic, others simply see it as a concession or recognition of the current dynamics of the internet. If the Rijksmuseum chose not to make its digitized collection public, lower-quality reproductions would still surface online.

“The thought was people will steal it anyhow,” Ms. Van der Harten said. “So the least we could do is try to convince people that they should use the best version available for free. Then we can guarantee the quality.”

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