Open Data and the Arts: What's Next?

Recently, two artists’ decision to violate a “no photography” policy at the Neuse Museum in Berlin made news stories across the globe. Using a Kinect, German-Iraqi artist Nora al-Badri and German artist Jan Kikolai Nelles secretly scanned a 3-D rendering of the museum’s famous centerpiece: the bust of the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. The museum, despite having their own 3-D scan of the bust, chooses to not release the image into public domain and provides minimal information of its rich history alongside its physical exhibit. The museum’s current policy, the artists argue, inhibits larger critical analysis of a decades old debate between Germany and Egypt over rightful ownership of the sculpture. To contrast the restrictive access policies of the museum, al-Badri and Nelles released a free torrent of the dataset of Nefertiti’s head on their project website for anyone to download, reinterpret and reuse. Al-Badri said she hoped the hack would spark, “a discussion on the originality and truth of data.”

Implicit in Al-Badri and Nelles’s call for open data policies in museums like the Neuse is the transformative potential of data in our contemporary globalized society. Individuals are realizing the ways in which data can be used to empower them as citizens, social innovators and entrepreneurs. Additionally, governments and businesses across disciplines are investing in open data policy initiatives. It is obvious that many are expecting the same from galleries, libraries, archives and museums (also known as the GLAM sector), who are renowned collectors of massive amounts of valuable data.

But how can GLAM institutions create long-term value with open data, the like of which al-Badri and Nelles’s project advocate? Can cultural institutions become leaders for social innovation by opening data? Open data advocates argue that yes, they can, but only if they are able to translate that data into useable knowledge.

Understanding Open Data in the GLAM sector

There are many factors that complicate how organizations implement open data policies. The first is the vague definition of “open.” The second factor is unfamiliarity with complex data (their physical objects) and their metadata (the provenance of the objects).

There is no “one” or “right” way to open access to data. The nature of an organization and the variety and amount of data they possess can dictate what they set free into the public domain. Confidentiality of sensitive information in government agencies is one example of the limitations of data openness. Although there is no generally accepted interpretation of open, advocates of open data policies agree that there needs to be some generally accepted principles that guide open data. Organizations like Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) consider data to be “open” if it is available and accessible for reuse, and redistribution among universal participation.

In the arts and cultural sector, some GLAMs restrict access to their collections, such as the Neuse Museum, while some go as far as others go as far as the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York City, which released 3D images of its own interior for users to remix and reuse. Museums often express concerns that digital access could drive patrons away from museums, while some like the National Museum of African American History and Culture have argued that opening exhibits to the public online  before they even finish construction on the building helps generate interest in visiting the museum once it opens. Legal issues surrounding releasing copyrighted material into the public domain is also a concern of many cultural institutions, but for others who leverage solutions such as Creative Commons, making once restricted information becomes a far simpler task.

Overall, the GLAM sector has accepted that there is much to be gained by opening up their most valuable asset: information. However, the difficulty of managing, organizing and understanding data once it is open prevents many organizations from investing more time and resources into these initiatives. Cultural institutions that can translate data into knowledge allow the entire sector as a whole to reevaluate long-term ways in which they can create value in their communities. Institutions that remain self-referential stand to lose a great deal and can isolate themselves from a wider audience. Below are two popular ways in which institutions in the GLAM sector have taken on these challenges:

1.      Letting Users Play and Create with Data

The Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, hailed as the Museum of the Future, is well-known as a leader in digital innovation in the arts sector and beyond. Very rarely do discussions on progressive open data policies exclude the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum whose own standards have successfully bridged the digital and the physical in unique ways. Their entire collection database is available on Github using a Creative Commons “no rights reserved” license. Their famous pen, available to patrons to use when they visit the museum, allows users to scan information about objects they interact with at the museum and access that data later on their website. They are currently looking into ways to link the pen with social media to enhance engagement. Finally, the Cooper Hewitt not only has an open data policy, but an open hacking policy as well. The museum frequently hosts opportunities that invite patrons to new technologies alongside the museum collections. The Beautiful Users exhibition is one of the best examples of the innovative potential of hacking.

One of the most popular hackathons was hosted by the Tate Modern at The Space. Artists, both known and unknown, were invited to participate in an over-night competition called Hack the Space in which they were instructed to “take any form of data and transform it into a creative digital artwork.” The winning project, titled $echo, used data donated by internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to challenge the way people perceive their security online by helping them hear and visualize the constant attacks on their presence.

Europeana, an internet portal that acts as an interface to millions of books, paintings, films, museum objects and archival records that have been digitized throughout Europe, has also implemented new ways to use hacking as a way to engage patrons. The organization invited designers, coders, museum experts, cultural managers, artists, creatives, IT and marketing experts to explore ways to re-invent the future museum experience at their 48-hour Future Museum Challenge.  Participants have access to a wealth of tools and resources, including millions of digitized cultural heritage items from around the world via Europeana Space’s Technical Platform. Teams work with these tools in hope of winning an opportunity to take their innovative ideas to the market via Europeana Space’s Incubation Support Package.

2.      Linking Open Data

Linked Open Data is a way of publishing structured data so that it can be interlinked. Linked data connects related data through the Web that was not previously associated, making the data more useful. The Smithsonian Institution has long been recognized as a leader in open data and added the unique element of Linked Open Data (LOD) to their policy in 2014. Through the use of LOD, provenance information may be viewed across institutions and collections, telling a more complete history of art.  Carnegie Museum of Art recently linked their open data in the second phase of its innovative project, Art Tracks: Standardizing Digital Provenance Documentation for Cultural Objects, funded by a $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Museums need to evaluate what can make them effective at generating value if they want to implement open data policies. As more and more museums embrace the potential of setting their data free, they need to think beyond using data to invest in their own institutions. While data can be confusing and difficult to work with, the trend seems to point to accepting imperfections and inviting outside sources in as a way to leverage value. Linked Data and Hack-a-thons are two examples of how museums are using wider audiences to help them interpret and develop creative ways that their open data can be used to create something larger.