Museums as sacred spaces series

I have had in mind for a while to write a series of articles exploring ideas, quite freeform, of museums and galleries as sacred spaces. This concept has interested me for a number of years, since I started working in the sector and remember seeing outside a provincial art gallery a sign which went something along the lines of ‘come in for quiet contemplation and meditation’. I found that both alluring and inviting in an otherwise smelly, noisy and raucous city.

We surround ourselves with noise these days, either to mask out other people’s uninvited noise or because we find the silence too difficult to deal with. I use ‘we’ in the loosest sense here. I want civic spaces which are deliberately quiet, still and, I suppose temple-like or at least sanctuary-like.

Another way in which I have thought about museums as sacred spaces is related to the debate about the display of human remains. Entire volumes can be written about all the arguments about what we should do with archaeologically-recovered human remains, some of which I will go through in time in subsequent posts, but I want to offer a new framework. Can we ever perceive the museum to be a new temple of the deceased? Isn’t this where we go to learn about the past? And haven’t humans for all time looked to their ancestors for knowledge and wisdom? Whether you have a spirituality or not, there is no doubting that we can and do learn a lot from the remains of our (the broad humanity ‘our’) ancestors.

And so it will be on these two subjects that I will begin.

National Portrait Gallery / Wikimedia

This is a quick response to a very good and pleasantly short blog post on Open Objects regarding the conflict caused by Wikimedia scraping high resolution ‘zoomified’ images from the NPG’s website and making them available.

I concur with your thoughts. I don’t think Wikimedia is, however, anything other than extremely naive not to have thought things through a bit better. That they couldn’t even respond promptly (allegedly) to original complaints by NPG is highly unprofessional and this in itself has lowered them in my esteem.

By and large I think the NPG’s response is balanced and correct. We should all be well aware by now that someone has to foot the bill for this quality of digitisation and delivery. It occurs to me that the ‘free, free’ mob is just as naive as WM in this regard.

Perhaps Wikimedia Foundation Inc could do what they did for Wikipedia last year and have a high profile campaign to raise money, but specifically for organisations to digitise and make available some of their content by way of return? I also don’t see any reason why WM needs to host such high res images; a decent image doesn’t have to be art catalogue quality and a link to the zoomify image on the organisation’s own website would surely suffice in the bid to ‘open up access’.

There is an active discussion going on on the Museum Computer Group and also the Museum Copyright Group which some have lamented as indicative of the lack of cohesion inherent in the museum/heritage/cultural sector on issues of access vs. the need for income to fund projects.

Some have said, well as they are publicly funded, they should make all this available for free. But who should pay? The very people who advocate this radical stance must enjoy taking their wage packets home at the end of the month and are not, as far as I can see, willing to give up their jobs for the greater good?

And in any case should we now question the motives of Wikimedia administrators who say they are doing this for the greater good of providing the sum of human wisdom to the world for free?

Whatever the legal rights and wrongs of all this two things are clear: in all acts, even ones purporting to be for the greater good need to be honourable and this one clearly was not, whether through naivity or not. Secondly, those who campaign for absolute open access to everything for free really need to start coming up with new arguments for how this could be made possible, assuming for now that the State is not going to suddenly decide that this is more important to support than propping up corrupt banks and over-bloated businesses.

Edit: I have just received an email from an anonymous person from Wikipedia Belgium wishing to point out the exact difference between Wikimedia Foundation Inc who ‘own’ (is this the right word?) Wikipedia and other projects like Wikimedia Commons. I have slightly adjusted the phrasing of the paragraph above regarding fundraising to clarify. I had appreciated the difference but had not expressed it clearly enough before so I hope this helps.

I was rather disappointed to have received this response to my post privately, which itself misunderstood what I was suggesting, as it means I cannot publish it here with my response, but I can say that I hope this anonymous individual will maintain a correspondence to make very clear a) what his/her opinion is and b) how projects like Wikimedia Commons can work more openly _with_ organisations like NPG so conflict like this doesn’t have to arise again. I can say, however, that the individual cited the Bridgeman Art Library vs Corel case in the US in his/her response, to which I replied that the ruling does not apply as a UK precedent as many of us who have been involved in collections digitisation realised a long time ago.

I have since received a further response and will be respecting the individual’s privacy as one can understand that in the current circumstances they would prefer it this way. I would, however, like to thank him/her for expressing their own personal thoughts about this case. I have been reminded that the nebulous network of people like Wikimedians don’t always in themselves agree about the best way to do things and there has been disappointment amongst other uses in the way the NPG images were reused, which were contrary to the terms and conditions NPG applied to their content. There is also a genuine desire to work more closely with organisations to make their content available through such initiatives as WM Commons and there have been examples of this, e.g. Wikipedia Loves Art and Wiki Loves Art. While content is usually sought on a gratis basis, there have been instances where illustrations have been paid for, and these are supported by the Philip Greenspun project.

So it’s been good to get some of these things aired. Wikimedia Inc has challenged the way we present our information in all its projects and it is perhaps not a bad thing that this conflict, which we all hope can be resolved amicably and quickly, has happened as it will at least give people and organisations pause for thought when undertaking digitisation projects, asking perhaps more obviously, who are we doing this for, why, and is this the best way?