The recent release of 375,000 images by the Metropolitan Museum of New York for full and complete re-use (ie with a Creative Commons Zero mark) throws into sharp relief how far many art galleries are from making their collections fully available online.

The situation is particularly bad in Glasgow. The Scottish city hosts some fine collections (such as the Burrell Collection, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, or the University’s Hunterian Art Gallery and Museum), displaying the eclectic tastes of Glasgow’s businessmen, scholars and philanthropists. Tapestries, jewellery, stained glass mingle with Old Masters and bright Scottish landscapists.

Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Simeon, 1699-1779; A Lady Taking Tea
Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Simeon; A Lady Taking Tea; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow. Copyright Uni of Glasgow (!!)

However, the digital collections are stuck somewhere in the dark ages.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum has no independent facility to search over its entire collections. Indeed, it’s not made clear how much of the collection is actually available in digital form. Some collections can be browsed, and after clicking through a jungle of hyperlinks you can get to items and metadata as part of another website (http://www.csgimages.org.uk/) that collates images from Glasgow museums.

 

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Screenshot of ‘Collection Highlights’, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

On this website you find that if you want to want to re-use an image …. you need to pay for it (pdf). I’m sure managing these rights loses them money. If you want to a cite a page, good luck with finding a trustable, permanent identifier. Screen width is a distinctly ungenerous 800 pixels. Don’t even bother going there with your smartphone. The whole website looks like a brochure, not an online collection. The maximum image size seems to be a miniscule 400 pixels in width.

When given such treatment paintings become indistinct, inexplicable relics, rather than living, breathing works of art.

The Hunterian Art Gallery and Museum at least has a searchable interface. But the design is primitive, the functionality rudimentary, and the images are tiny, many shrouded in unnecessary copyright.

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Screenshot for searching Hunterian collections

The situation is particularly egregious for the Burrell Collection. The museum is closed until 2020 for refurbishment, so the full extent of the collection is visible neither in digital and physical form. A whole treasure chest of art locked and buried. A few years ago, the trustees decided to ignore William Burrell’s request that items in the collection should not travel outside Glasgow. This was controversial, but made sense. But this current lack of access betrays Burrell’s original vision in more a fundamental way.

Why then, along with many other museums in Glasgow, are these websites so poor?

I suspect the reason is political rather than technical. My guess is that around 15 years ago, an unholy alliance of corporate communications and technical convenience meant that all government-funded museums (the Hunterian is part of the University and therefore has separate funding, or probably lack-of-funding streams) were obliged to use the Glasgow Life platform.

This may have made sense then, but now it means the collections are trapped. They need need financial, strategic and technical leverage if they are to move to more open, generous interfaces and to be exposed more fully on the web. This takes time and effort to convince the right people that this needs to be done.

What makes it particularly galling for any Glaswegian is that the situation for the art galleries in Edinburgh is much much better. Edinburgh’s National, Portrait and Modern Galleries have worked together to create a networked collection of online artwork, designed for the 21st century. The artworks shine on the Edinburgh interface. It’s rare for Glaswegians to be envious of Edinburgh, but in this occasion, they can be nothing but.

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Screenshot from search results page for National Galleries of Scotland