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How do you turn a huge headache into an even bigger opportunity? Beatrice Gullström speaks to Martijn Pronk, head of publishing at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, about digital rights

8 min read

Late last year in the British Library Martijn Pronk gave brilliant lecture at a symposium on picture libraries organised by the Association of Cultural Enterprises. He began by showing a YouTube video and moved towards the exit. When the video was over he joked that standing by the door was a strategic move, so he could easily get away if the audience, full of picture librarians and other people who work with rights and licensing within the arts, were to come after him. Why, you might wonder?

Martijn Pronk

Martijn Pronk

The animated video he showed had been skilfully put together. It was humorous and beautiful, showing works of art dancing along on pastel coloured skies to a catchy tune. It left you smiling, not wanting to attack the speaker. The video was created using more than 200 works of art, all downloaded from the Rijksmuseum’s website. For free.

While many are trying to come up with solutions for how to charge for content online, and institutions are charging high fees for permission to reproduce the works from their collections, the Rijksmuseum is letting anyone download images from their collection for free to use as they please. The museum even encourages users to ‘create your own masterpiece,’ which might involve changing or reusing Rembrandts’ renowned Night Watch.

Up until last year the Rijksmuseum had been closed for ten years undergoing renovation. It is an art institution that holds a special place in the hearts of the Dutch, and the reopening was therefore a momentous occasion. Accompanied with music and orange fireworks the building was reopened by Queen Beatrix in April 2013. One of the challenges the museum has faced Martijn explained, has been to reconnect with visitors. Openness, and giving the museum back to the public has been very important. The new website was launched in October 2012. When designing it the team at the Rijksmuseum chose to focus on a type of visitor called the ‘culture snacker’.

Rijksmuseum opening

Rijksmuseum opening

I got in touch with Martijn a few months after his talk to learn more about the culture snacker and the business of setting content free.

At the talk in December you spoke about the ‘culture snacker’. How did you decide that this was your target audience?

“The Rijksmuseum is for everybody. Therefore, the Rijksmuseum website is for everybody. However, aiming to please everybody at the same time you compromise constantly and in the end nobody is 100% satisfied. We have chosen to focus on one target group instead. For the development of our site we have looked at what else is successful on the Internet today. We have targeted those customers. The ‘culture snacker’ we focus on is the typical Internet user of today, pinning on Pinterest, watching videos, sharing photos. Interested in art, design, travel, but not an art lover per se. Rijksstudio is the ‘translation’ of a museum website for this group. Of course we also serve those who wish to read and view more, but we ask them to make an extra effort (i.e. an extra mouse click or a search query). This way, we don’t mix our customer groups.”

Now the Rijks Studio can go on the road

Now the Rijks Studio can go on the road

Being an art museum “and all about images” as Martijn Pronk put it during the talk, the Rijksmuseum is in a very good position as the Internet is increasingly becoming more and more about images. When designing the website, they had tablet users in mind.

“When we started working on the new website the iPad was really taking off. It wasn’t difficult to see its success. Since we wanted to bring the collection up close, the tablet was the perfect instrument. You touch the art with your fingers and literally interact with it in a new way. You will notice the big buttons and navigation optimized for touchscreens. You can navigate through the collection in a very pleasant way. Close up images of our art are very appealing on a tablet. Furthermore we have built our website to be responsive so it adapts to whatever device it is visited on whether desktop, tablet or phone. A new website in 2014 cannot afford not being responsive. Besides, you may not even need to develop an app for mobiles if your site is responsive. Average visits last for over 11 minutes on mobile devices. This proves that visiting our collection on a tablet works quite well.”

Making a collection available for anyone to use is a bold move

I recall thinking what an amazing opportunity the Rijksmuseum have had during the ten-year renovation. They had access to the whole collection for new photography, and this is exactly what they did. An extensive part of the museums collection was photographed and these images are available on the ‘Rijksstudio’ application where anyone can download copyright-free, high-resolution images from the collection and use them for whatever purpose, even commercial.

Looking at the website today, another 20,000 images have been added since Martijn’s talk. Visitors are now able to browse through some 150,000 works from the collection. To get access to the images in the Rijksstudio a user registers and creates an account. Once ‘inside’ you can collect images and organise them according to themes in a similar way that you can on Pinterest.

What made the Rijksmuseum decide to make images of the collection available without charging for them?

“The collection is not our property. It belongs to every Dutchman and thus to the world. Rijksmuseum has never charged very much for images. The reopening of the museum building in 2013 was a great opportunity to take the next step and end charging altogether. We have placed most images in the public domain, freeing them for commercial use, too. We want everybody to have a little piece of Rijksmuseum in their lives. This is why we want to take away all barriers. This has greatly contributed to the Rijksmuseum becoming a ‘love brand’, a museum truly connecting with the global online audience of today. A pleasant side effect is the tens of thousands of new Twitter and Facebook followers, and newsletter subscribers. We have established a relationship with all these people who may not have had the opportunity to visit the museum yet.”

You have given users free rein of the images available in the Rijksstudio. What are people doing with them?

“The possibilities are virtually limitless. Since the images are high resolution details of images are available. People can now collect moustaches, kittens or thunderclouds. In the mass of over 150,000 images there is always a fit, a connection with your own interest. Use images simply as a wallpaper on your desktop, or start working with them.”

Sitting in the inspired and slightly stunned audience at the symposium in December, I of course wondered where the Rijksmuseum make their profit, if they make one at all. The thousands of images available to download for free are high resolution jpegs. Professionals can request larger files from the picture library – also for free. Users are asked to credit all images to the Rijksmuseum, but they are not permitted to say that their creations are products of the museum. The non-financial gain that the Rijksmuseum makes is great.

Tattoo by Droog, based on the 17th century painting Still Life with Flowers by Jan Davidz. de Heem

Tattoo by Droog, based on the 17th century painting Still Life with Flowers by Jan Davidz. de Heem

It is a bold move to make a collection like the Rijksmuseum’s available for anyone to use. It is new and exciting and may well be a hard act to follow. I am curious to see if the Rijksmuseum and their Rijksstudio has started a new trend in the arts world. I’m hoping that other institutions will be inspired to look at new ways of encouraging their visitors to engage with their collections. With this hub of art, images and creativity, my final question to Martijn is whether any new partnerships have materialised as a result of the Rijksstudio launch.

“We have just partnered with Rijksstudio is the perfect ‘raw material’ for everybody creating their own products and selling them on Etsy. We hope working with Etsy will stimulate the use of Rijksstudio images among creatives. We also worked with known Dutch designers, such as studio Droog, fashion designer Alexander van Slobbe and video artist Christian Borstlap. They have created new masterpieces using our collection.”