Museums Offer Free, High-Resolution Downloads of Masterpieces

Every museum hangs and presents their unique pieces on display within its walls, and some go so far as to post their collections online.  One Amsterdam museum is getting attention for taking a big step further – offering downloads of its artwork in high resolution, at no cost.  The Rijksmuseum is encouraging the public to share, download, copy and use its artwork (everything from photography to classic fine art) without limit.

“We’re a public institution, and so the art and objects we have are, in a way, everyone’s property,” says museum Director of collections, Taco Dibbits. “‘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,”

Wait ‘til Van Gogh hears about this! … Get it? … nevermind.

Is this a good or bad thing?  What does this mean for classical works of art and for the public institutions that traditionally safeguard them?

Museums are usually very protective of good-quality digital versions of their artworks in order to protect copyrights, control potential revenues and prevent forgeries.   Such images are normally only made available to the press or to art historians and scholars.

In recent years the Google Art Project has gotten cooperation with thousands of global museums to display HQ art on their pages, and the internet is replete with low-resolution crappy pics for people to share, play with and make awful memes like the one below.  So museums have been forced to reconsider their model and strategy.


“Basically, this is the wave of the future for museums in the age of digital communications, sharing is what museums need to learn to do.” Says Deboraz Ziska, a spokeswoman for the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

As for copyrights, the Rijksmuseum has the benefit of a collection that predates much of Dutch copyright law.  According to Paul Keller, a copyright adviser, “For modern art museums, what they’re doing would be largely impossible.”

Each institution seems to be moving into this digital age at their own pace and in their own way. Washington’s own Smithsonian has chosen to digitize only 14 million sound files, video clips and journals … but none of its 137 million fine artworks will be in high resolution.  London’s national gallery has HQ digitized art for education purposes only, not public and not free … as they still hope to gain revenue from sales.

The Rijksmuseum maintains an ‘anything goes’ approach to it masterpieces.  Director Taco Dibbits says “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,”

Well alright.

This is the internet’s most animated animator, saying … “Someone please call the major music labels and fill them in on this ‘digital age’ stuff.”


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