Digital collections, open data and the boundaries of openness: a case study from the National Galleries of Scotland

Jen Ross, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, Ashley Beamer, Royal Ontario Museum, Canada, Christopher Ganley, national galleries of scotland, UK


Discussions of openness in the cultural heritage sector often do not acknowledge that “all forms of openness entail forms of closed-ness” (Edwards 2015, 253). We need more sensitivity to what is gained and lost with different framings of openness. In the cultural sector, openness has political as well as practical implications, and associated closures, that require attention. This paper draws on the experiences of the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), gathered in the form of research interviews in late 2016 and internal reflections on a major project to redevelop the NGS website. We explore the extent to which particular emphases around openness, including copyright and the need to focus on digitizing collections, took priority over other important issues, such as open data and standardization. We characterize NGS’ strategy as one of "progressive openness." The underlying infrastructure of the website was developed to eventually facilitate sharing of data via Web services to other projects or digital outputs, for example, ArtUK and Europeana, making it technically possible to expose and share data. However, this functionality and its implications were not well understood within the institution, and the widely shared vision of openness did not always include possibilities for making material available beyond the boundaries of the website. Assumptions about the website as the core location for digital objects left some opportunities underexplored, such as the opportunity to think beyond this website to the other places, times, and contexts in which people might encounter the collections online. Strategic attention to and awareness of open data, standardization, and the licensing of textual materials do not necessarily flow naturally from an orientation and commitment to openness. This paper explores this dynamic, and discusses how organizations might consider their own "boundaries of openness."

Keywords: Openness, standardization, open data, copyright, digitization, organizational change


The utopian vision of frictionless access to unlimited knowledge is one that underpins many accounts of the Internet, social media, and the expectations of digitally savvy consumers and visitors. This is often accompanied by a deterministic assumption about technology’s inevitable impact on society, and positions the concept of openness as a response to such impact. Sanderhoff (2013), for example, describes “the challenges inflicted on the cultural heritage sector by digital technologies” (132), while Walsh (2007) claims that “the advent of inexpensive digital imaging, the spread of the World Wide Web, and the ability of these two technologies to quickly and easily alter, publish, and distribute photographic images, has radically changed the old, post-photographic hegemony,” and indeed the standard for “visual truth” (31).

However, openness is a term which carries a lot of baggage, and its use in the cultural heritage sector is no exception. It is therefore important to begin any analysis of open access policies, practices, and perspectives by examining critically the concept itself. The main issue with a utopian conception of openness, as has been well described by Edwards (2015), is that it does not acknowledge that “all forms of openness entail forms of closed-ness,” and that “it is only through certain closings that certain openings become possible and vice versa” (253). Edwards encourages more sensitivity to what is gained and lost with each framing of openness. This has been recognized in practical terms by colleagues at the Getty, who, reflecting on their open content activity after three years, note “it’s important for the institution to clearly understand—and be able to articulate—why it values open licensing, and to be able to distinguish between the projects that can and should be openly licensed and those that can’t or shouldn’t be” (Conway et al., 2016).

These kinds of reflections, many of which have been shared at the Museums and the Web conference over the years (see for example Bray 2009, Kingston, and Edgar 2015), and attention to conceptual issues around openness, are helpful. They offer us not a single, monolithic understanding of openness, but the possibility of nuanced analysis of how particular forms of openness are understood and implemented. In the cultural sector, as in other sectors, openness has political as well as practical implications, and associated closures, that require attention.

A number of researchers have brought this attention to bear on developments in a range of organizations and national contexts. Legal scholars, art historians, educational researchers and others have identified some key dimensions of open access which considerably complicate any attempt to understand openness as one side of a simple binary, including issues around value and reproduction, access and ownership, and complexity in collections space.

This paper is an account of institutional change and emerging perspectives on openness at the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), a large publicly-funded institution based primarily in Edinburgh, Scotland, with a national remit and international reach. By exploring the processes and vision informing open access developments at NGS, and drawing on interview data from a pilot study conducted there in late 2016, we can share a rich picture of one configuration of the tensions, challenges, values, and principles that–we argue–construct the boundaries of openness in all institutions. While each institutional “map” of openness will look different, this approach offers valuable research insights and productive ways for organiations to debate, develop, and move forward in a complex environment where openness and closure intersect.

Dimensions of open access

A decade ago, Kelly et al. (2008), recognizing the nuances and complexities of openness and open standards in cultural organizations, recommended adopting a “contextual model which recognizes the diversity and complexities of the technical, development and funding environments,” accompanied by “a process of learning and refinement” and a “support infrastructure based on openness.” They concluded that a flexible approach to cultures of openness is needed so that organizations can navigate complexities that emerge. These complexities are technical, organizational, ethical, and social, and can usefully be understood in relation to concepts of value, access, and complexity.

Value and reproduction

The digital reproduction of cultural objects and artworks has had significant consequences for the understanding of how these objects carry value. The value attached to the scarcity and authenticity of the original object is affected by the attention given to the accessibility, reach, and attention-getting power of digital reproductions. Open access policies and practices focus primarily on the accessibility of digital objects, and from the museum’s perspective, digital objects always have intrinsic and literal worth because of the resource involved in generating and handling them. However, there are considerable tensions around how these are understood as valuable in their own right, beyond being “surrogates” for or “enhancements” of the original (Bayne et al., 2009, 111).

Graham’s (2017) analysis of inclusion, access, and participation offers a perspective on value that can help go beyond “enhancement.” She argues that maintaining museums and their objects as “public goods” requires those objects to be held at “arm’s length” “so that all can potentially be included and have equal and non-excludable access” (155). At the same time, the need for certain stakeholders, such as communities for whom objects are particularly meaningful, to “actively use” collections requires a rethinking of access. Graham calls for such rethinking to involve planning for a “mix between use and management of collections by groups of people that are the collection’s community with some form of accountability to a wider public” (163). Digital access and the ability for the public to actively use digital objects which are out of copyright, for example, offers modes of participation that align well with this way of thinking. At the same time, such access is far from straightforward to implement or maintain, as we will see.

Ownership and copyright

Copyright and licensing of digital images and assets, highly complex in their own right, intensify the challenges of openness. It is tempting to view copyright claims as working against openness, and there are many contexts in which this has been demonstrated. There is evidence that “permissions cultures,” “the assumption that all copyrighted materials must be used only with permission” (Aufderheide et al., 2016, 2013) have chilling effects on creative endeavors across the cultural landscape, promoting a “fearful approach” to the reuse of materials (2020). Aufderheide et al. discovered that a third of survey respondents in their study of 2100 people, including scholars, editors, museum professionals, and artists, had avoided or abandoned projects because of “actual or perceived inability to obtain permission to use third-party works” (ibid).

Beyond this, Crews (2011) discusses forms of copyright overreach: asserting rights to the public domain; asserting legal rights that the museum does not hold; asserting rights beyond copyright; and asserting simulated claims of moral rights. He argues that, while “controlling access to the original artwork is an outgrowth of the museum’s possession of property, not of copyright” (806), complex claims around copyright, licensing, and contract terms are invoked for digital reproductions in order to protect the integrity of the art; drive researchers and others to the museum; ensure credit for their collections and work; and to adhere to donor (or funder) requirements (813-4). Where these claims constitute overreach, they may affect public enjoyment and appreciation of art, and Crews urges individual museums to revisit their policies. However, becoming more flexible and open can create issues for organizations whose remit includes developing a thorough understanding of the value of their collections to the public: “Giving up control of the knowledge about reproduction is not an easy undertaking for a collecting institution especially with the policy of ‘pay for access’ that enables this control. The knowledge about how Museum content is utilized is an important asset to the organization, and a measure often hard to track in open access initiatives” (Bray, 2009).

The question of integrity is, in itself, a contested one, as Eschenfelder and Caswell (2010) point out, writing, “which uses constitute ‘respectful’ use are open to interpretation” (7). They also note the “danger of being portrayed as ‘hoarding’ cultural works” (8) by exerting heavy control over digital collections.

Even when these challenges are successfully negotiated and decisions made to allow collections to be openly used and reused, new questions and possibilities emerge in collections spaces that extend beyond single institutions.

Complexity in collections space

The boundaries between collections and institutions online are becoming increasingly blurred, as Cameron and Mengler (2009) point out: “Collections space is no longer fixed, given or separate. Instead, it is dynamic, becoming or traveling, slowly or quickly, through greater or shorter distances and within networks of both human and nonhuman agents” (196).

They suggest that cultural organizations cannot hope to eliminate complexity, and should instead see it as a “creative force in mapping and assembling the social world to which objects resonate, and one to be understood and embraced by the sector” (197). This offers possibilities for a number of areas, including education—for example, what Charitonos et al. (2012) refer to as “interconnected opinion space” generated by social media in museum learning contexts. It also leads to new questions about how digital material is recontextualized, which Kirton and Terras (2013) argue are tightly linked to “bigger questions about impact and value facing the cultural and heritage sector at the moment”. These questions about context, value, and boundaries are of considerable interest to many organizations, and we now move on to discuss one in particular: The National Galleries of Scotland.

National Galleries of Scotland institutional context

The National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) is one of the National Collections of Scotland, publicly funded and comprising of three galleries in Edinburgh and two partner galleries in the North and South of Scotland. First open to the public in 1850, NGS’ mission is to do the following:

  • care for, preserve and add to the objects in its collections;
  • ensure that the objects are exhibited to the public;
  • ensure that the objects are available to persons seeking to inspect them in connection with study or research; and generally, to promote the public’s enjoyment and understanding of the Fine Arts;
  • to provide education, instruction, and advice and to carry out research. (

In 2014, a digital engagement strategy was approved for the organisation, and its strategic objectives were to open up the collections and knowledge, grow audiences, and increase income generation. A key approach to meeting these objectives was to digitize and make available the collections, supplemented with long-form content for certain works and supported by user-experience research. At that time, only about 6,000 artworks in the NGS collection of over 92,000 works had been digitized, and these were variable in terms of file formats, metadata standards, quality, color management, lighting, and methodologies for archival quality documentation. A project manager was hired to develop a program to digitize the entire collection, including permanent collections and long term loans. At that time, procurement of photography was very expensive, and a sustainable approach was needed. Two studios were set up in close proximity to the two print rooms, and an end-to-end process was developed and tested through a three month pilot project, which confirmed that the whole collection could be photographed in five years, to be completed in 2020.

Also in support of the strategy, the NGS website underwent a major redevelopment in 2016-17, focusing on “improved digital access to our collection and services” (Beamer & Ganley, 2017). The scale of the two projects has been significant: moving from 6,000 artwork records online to over 92,000 records online (with more than half of these including images, and this number rising as digitization proceeds).

Colleagues at NGS were inspired by a number of examples of open practice in other institutions, such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The challenges of translating that inspiration to the NGS context, where funding levels and monetization strategies were different, led to questions about how allowing direct downloads of digital images of public domain art might effect shop sales, for example. Developing a business case and factoring in staff resources for processing orders led to the conclusion that profit loss would likely be minimal. The new online shop has increased income for NGS, but there is currently no income generation from digital images or information; but, if NGS makes digital surrogates of public domain art open as public domain (currently under discussion), they may ask for a donation during the download process. Users are currently asked to agree to an NGS license (similar to a Creative Commons attribution non-commercial license) before downloading larger images, with implied intellectual property rights claims. Smaller images are Creative Commons (BY-CC-NC) licensed.

In considering how these open digital objects might travel beyond the digital and material boundaries of NGS, a number of possibilities are currently under review. NGS is currently developing digital partnerships to enhance engagement and reach of the collection. The sharing functionality on the website allows users to place artworks elsewhere on the Internet in an ad hoc manner, but strategic partnerships with specific platforms such as Wikimedia or Google could offer more consistent reach. On a metadata level, new flagging could be introduced into the Digital Asset Management System to indicate the public domain status of digital works. This would feed through to the middleware, so that images could be used and licensed appropriately on the NGS website or the websites of any partnership projects; for example, Europeana or ArtUK.

Beyond images, NGS is interested in exploring open data standards where possible, including engaging new tech-savvy audiences who might appreciate this. New processes may be needed for open data licensing around other media and digital content. Decisions about the open access status of essays, learning resources, and designs created in response to the collection, which is the primary content created by NGS, are important to consider. Decisions will also need to be made about how orphan works are treated, and how openly licensed assets not from the collection are used. However, these types of conversations and decisions depend on a shared understanding of the value of such usage, and it is here where the issue of “boundaries of openness” becomes particularly relevant. The rest of this paper outlines how such boundaries were understood within NGS at a particular point in time, and suggests how institutions might build on the insights offered here.


Between July and October 2016, Jen Ross and Glyn Davis from the University of Edinburgh conducted six research interviews with members of staff at NGS, representing strategic, curatorial, education, trading, digital and systems perspectives. The study was designed as a preliminary exploration of issues affecting people in a range of roles, especially those currently most directly affected by shifts in approach to openness and open access (such roles may be found in departments including digital, education, press and marketing, the picture library and publications, as well as curatorial, library, collections management, and visitor services). The study aimed to be indicative, rather than representative, of the opinions and experiences of the roughly 400 staff members across NGS, though many of those interviewed fielded views from their respective departments, as well as gave their own perspectives. Ethical approval for the research was granted by the School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. Semi-structured interviews took place at various locations around the galleries, and each lasted about 45 minutes. Interviewees were briefed in advance about the intention to summarize and cite their contributions for the research committee at NGS and for other research purposes; all gave consent for this, subject to being consulted about direct quotes to be used. Audio was recorded and transcribed, and the transcripts were analyzed by the researchers, capturing emerging themes and key observations that help shed light on what sorts of issues were “live” and important for colleagues in relation to openness at that time, what future policy and practice might look like in this area, and what key questions remained to be answered. Interviewees are quoted anonymously, and their specific job titles are not given in what follows, though general areas of work are noted where relevant.

Findings: Boundaries of openness at NGS

All six interviewees expressed a strong commitment to principles of open access: there is a high-level shared understanding of the value of these principles across the many functions of the galleries, and everyone described the many ways they sought out new ideas and approaches to help NGS deliver on its ambitions. Above all, there was agreement that greater openness, and digital access to collections, represents an inevitable, and welcomed, direction of travel for NGS. Different people framed this differently, depending on their roles and responsibilities, but the following comment from an interviewee represents the overall tone of these conversations: “This is enriching our offer and fulfilling our national remit because, you know, people all over the country might not be able to make it down to Edinburgh or to any of the venues that we’re touring our collection to. But they’re tax payers, this is their collection as much as anyone else’s. So it sort of helps us be more of what we’re supposed to be.”

Despite these shared values, interviewees described different ways that openness and access are discussed throughout NGS’ various departments, teams, and buildings. How to enable, implement, or facilitate openness is a continual challenge, as one interviewee noted: “I think [NGS staff] think about [openness] a lot. And it’s actually the reality of making it happen that’s the sticking point. […] And it’s ongoing… I don’t know if anyone understands the full [implications], or whether they need to.”

Within the institution, discussion topics around openness included copyright and the website, but other important issues–like open data, or standards–were sometimes overlooked. Some of the implications and the ultimate aims of openness, interviewees suggested, may be more implicit than explicit when the focus remained on getting as many works and records as possible online. We repeatedly heard from interviewees that NGS’ decision to digitize its content had led to new and unexpected issues opening up. As one interviewee put it, “it’s brought up things that I suppose people didn’t realize who were pushing for it at the beginning”.

There was also a perspective within some parts of NGS that commercial considerations were a barrier to openness, and that more open access would be possible but was hampered by priorities around income generation. However, a number of interviewees, including those whose roles involve considering income generation, took a relatively nuanced view about this. For example, some suggested that giving more away for free might have positive effects in terms of promoting and supporting the institution (for example, provoking people to spend money in the online shop): “If you have a strong brand and if that brand is out there and it’s known for certain things, certain standards, certain qualities, certain freedoms, open content, then you’re driving people to your site and they’re going to use it in all manner of ways and it’s only going to benefit.”

A barrier was that little was known about to what extent these benefits are being realized, and that the connections between openness, reputation-building and income generation across the income streams of the gallery were not yet well understood.

Despite the nature of these emergent and often cross-departmental issues, another interviewee suggested that understandings of openness tended to be localized, specific to individual roles and their responsibilities. Furthermore, resource and expertise may not always match up to strategic support for access: “I think it is something that is understood broadly in the organization as a priority… Although there is broad support and willingness for access at a strategic level it is not always adequately resourced at ground level.”

The infrastructure of the new website was developed to facilitate sharing of data via Web services to other projects or digital outputs, for example ArtUK and Europeana, making it technically possible to expose and share data. However, there was relatively little said by most interviewees about the implications for openness in terms of making material available beyond the boundaries of the website. There appeared to be assumptions about the website as the core location for digital objects, and opportunities to think well beyond this to the other places, times, and contexts in which people might encounter the collections online were less often noted.

Interviewees in more technical roles told us that these opportunities require more strategic attention to and awareness of open data, standardization, and the licensing of textual materials, among other things–matters that are sometimes seen as technical considerations rather than as key drivers for the future of digital openness: “Obviously the images are important and very visual, but I’m more interested in data feeds and getting things out first of all in the databases and on the website, but then also feeding out […] to other services that can consume them and bringing data together in that way.

In this respect, what we would characterize as NGS’ strategy of “progressive openness,” while clearly extremely successful in terms of developing the new website and digitizing the collections, may also act to close off or obscure some meaningful possibilities. There was an assumption that NGS would “get all the collection records online, and that would activate some sort of discussion around open access,” but also a sense that this had not yet happened in ways that might best support creative and big-picture thinking in this area.


A written report of this study was well received at NGS, and was among the factors that supported some important conversations about open data and how to approach digital surrogates of out of copyright works in particular. A group was set up within the organisation to look at the out of copyright collections and routes towards open access for these. Decisions made by this group will influence, but are also influenced by, the status of the roughly 25% of the collection which is in copyright, and it is here that some of the tensions between openness and closure are currently most keenly felt. Developing a reputation for fully embracing open licensing, which would clearly be beneficial in terms of public reach and perception, may create issues for relationships with artists, estates, donors, and benefactors. These stakeholders have a wide variety of views and priorities in relation to licensing and access, and complex and multiple negotiations around access take place when new works are acquired or loaned to NGS. At present there are not many examples to learn from or adapt of large-scale open practice among institutions with significant in-copyright collections.

Another key challenge is in measuring the value of what NGS offers to audiences and visitors. At present this is still largely measured in terms of key performance indicators which have relied, in the digital domain, on metrics of website use and access. If and when access to NGS content and the works it shares online is routinely gained from other digital locations, evaluation and measurement of impact will have to evolve to capture this, and technological solutions are only part of the challenge here (though a significant one).

NGS is moving forward in ambitious ways to make more of its content as available and accessible as possible. However, what is clear is that shared values around openness do not lead inevitably to policies that can tackle challenging questions around complexity, value, and ownership. An orientation and commitment to making collections “open” can have different significance to different stakeholders, and strategic attention to open data, standardization, and licensing needs to be addressed explicitly and in conversation that brings together colleagues from around the institution. These challenges have implications for all parts of the organization, and many different perspectives can helpfully be brought together to address them.

For institutions grappling with similar or related questions and issues around open access, there are useful lessons to be taken from understanding openness as complex, and by its nature, involving closures. A starting point that assumes complexity and recognizes that there are shared values but divergent understandings of how to put these into practice, will help organizations prepare for and work successfully to navigate tensions around balances of openness and closure.


Aufderheide, P., T. Milosevic, & B. Bello. (2016). ‘The impact of copyright permissions culture on the US visual arts community: The consequences of fear of fair use.” New Media & Society, 18 (9), 2012–27. doi: 10.1177/1461444815575018.

Bayne, S., J. Ross, & Z. Williamson. (2009). “Objects, subjects, bits and bytes: learning from the digital collections of the National Museums.” Museum and Society(2), 110–24. Available

Beamer, A. & C. Ganley. (2017). “Welcome to the new National Galleries of Scotland website.” Museum Computer Group blog. Consulted 4 March 2018. Available

Bray, P. (2009). “Open Licensing and the Future for Collections.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted 4 March 2018. Available

Cameron, F. & S. Mengler. (2009) “Complexity, Transdisciplinarity and Museum Collections Documentation: Emergent Metaphors for a Complex World.” Journal of Material Culture, 14 (2), 189–218. doi: 10.1177/1359183509103061.

Charitonos, K., C. Blake, E. Scanlon, & A. Jones. (2012). “Museum learning via social and mobile technologies: (How) can online interactions enhance the visitor experience?” British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(5), 802–19.

Conway, M., M. Clifford, & N. Deines. (2016). “Open Content at the Getty: Three Years Later, Some Lessons Learned.” The Iris: Behind the Scenes at the Getty. Published August 16, 2016. Consulted 4 March 2018. Available

Crews, K. D. (2011). “Museum Policies and Art Images: Conflicting Objectives and Copyright Overreaching.” Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, 22, 795–834.

Edwards, R. (2015). “Knowledge infrastructures and the inscrutability of openness in education.” Learning, Media and Technology, 40 (3), 251–64.

Eschenfelder, K. R., & M. Caswell. (2010). “Digital cultural collections in an age of reuse and remixes.” Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology47 (1), 1–10.

Graham, H. (2017). “Publics and Commons: The Problem of Inclusion for Participation.” ARKEN Bulletin, 7. Consulted 4 March 2018. Available

Kelly, B., M. Ellis, R. Gardler. (2008). “What Does Openness Mean To The Museum Community?” Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings. University of Bath, Archives & Museum Informatics, 2008. Consulted 4 March 2018. Available

Kingston, A. & P. Edgar. (2015). “A review of a year of open access images at Te Papa. Museums and the Web Asia 2015: Proceedings. Melbourne, Archives & Museum Informatics, 2015. Consulted 4 March 2018.

Kirton, I. & M. Terras. (2013). “Where Do Images of Art Go Once They Go Online? A Reverse Image Lookup Study to Assess the Dissemination of Digitized Cultural Heritage.” Museums and the Web 2013: Proceedings. Portland, Archives & Museum Informatics, 2013. Consulted 4 March 2018. Available

Sanderhoff, M. (2013). “Open Images. Risk or opportunity for art collections in the digital age?” Nordisk Museologi, (2), 131.

Walsh, P. (2007). “Rise and fall of the post-photographic museum: Technology and the transformation of art.” Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage, 29.

Cite as:
Ross, Jen, Beamer, Ashley and Ganley, Christopher. "Digital collections, open data and the boundaries of openness: a case study from the National Galleries of Scotland." MW18: MW 2018. Published January 14, 2018. Consulted .