A pair of geishas holding puppets of sumo wrestlers? An 18th century Chinese landscape featuring African figures? 16th century etchings of fantastical sea creatures? Any of these masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum could be yours — on a t-shirt, mug, or (if it matches your decor) reproduced large-scale to hang above your couch. It’s your choice. In 2015, the Rijksmuseum dramatically opened access to digital scans of objects in its collection. Now anyone can download high-resolution images from the Rijksmuseum website and subsequently do pretty much what they would like with them. The museum imposes no copyright restriction. Of course it readily encourages people to apply the images to their own products (for sale on the museum website), thereby permitting the museum to make money along the way, but this is not required.
It’s a radical step for a major museum — and as might be expected, not an uncontroversial one. To some, such a shameless monetization of a museum’s collection seems beneath the institution’s dignity. Others argue that it supremely valorizes the decorative aspects of art above any cultural or historical worth. It seems cheap somehow — an ultimate cave to profit motives. The points are hard to disagree with. But at the same time, it is a bold move on the part of the museum. The strategy directly challenges traditional notions of institutional authority and the exclusivity of art ownership. It upends ideas about who has a right to art — as well as who may define a piece’s meaning or worth. Interestingly, contrary to expectations that increased accessibility to digital versions of the art would decrease museum attendance, the opposite has occurred: last year’s attendance numbers were record setting. And rather than seeing low-quality reproductions of its collection circulate on the internet, now high quality ones are the norm. Has the museum utterly and completely sold its soul? Or has it struck a path toward a more open and accessible art future? Whatever we may conclude, one thing is for sure: now that the images are publicly digitally available online, there is no going back.