On Tuesday, April 28, the British Museum announced that it is the latest institution to make digitized images of its various collections available for free online. The ‘revamped’ online collections database now contains 1.9 million images that are offered to the public under the restrictive Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license, which allows for non-commercial use with attribution.
According to the announcement tweet from British Museum, its team expedited the release of this new online database so that the public can browse the museum’s collections while in quarantine at home. The launch follows similar big digitized collections launches from institutions like Paris Musées and The Smithsonian.
This revamp simplifies things for public users who are no longer required to register in order to use the images. Going forward, anyone can browse the online collections database and download any of the 1.9 million images for non-commercial use with attribution. Each image is scanned at a high-resolution; the online viewer enables users to zoom in on objects to view fine details.
Today we’re excited to launch a major revamp of our Collection online! 🏛📲
We’ve been working extra hard to bring you this update early so you can #MuseumFromHome even better than before.
Access the collection digitally wherever you are: https://t.co/a2CPohwarP pic.twitter.com/py0ppV4ktV
— British Museum (@britishmuseum) April 28, 2020
According to the British Museum, this collection features two million years’ worth of history that spans six continents. The museum digitized nearly 4.5 million objects, making it the largest online collection of its kind. British Museum explains that its revamped interface not only provides access to these images for free but also makes it easier for the public to find the specific items they’re looking for.
The online collections are vast, including everything from ancient Egyptian sculptures to Assyrian artifacts, Greek objects, Iranian jewelry, artwork from the Roman Empire and much more. Viewers can sort through the content based on collection galleries, as well as searches using museum numbers, persons, places and keywords.
This launch is a welcomed addition to the growing body of digitized artifacts and other works made available to the general public online. However, the release isn’t without criticism. Unlike The Smithsonian and Paris Musées, both of which released their online collections with Creative Common 0 licenses, the British Museum’s collection is made available under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
The @britishmuseum has placed 1.9 million high-rez images of objects in its holdings online under a Creative Commons license, which is excellent news! https://t.co/0j5nf0fzhU
— Covered Dish People (@doctorow) April 29, 2020
Author and activist Coro Doctorow highlighted some of the concerns related to this in a recent tweet thread, pointing out, among other things, that UK law states that copyrights can only subsist in cases where the work is ‘original in the sense that it is the author’s own ‘intellectual creation.” Among other things, the nation’s copyright law [PDF, page 3] notes that it’s ‘unlikely that what is merely a retouched, digitised image of an older work can be considered as ‘original.”
Critics have also pointed out that Wikimedia Commons only allows images that aren’t ‘subject to copyright restrictions which would prevent them being used by anyone, anytime, for any purpose,’ meaning the British Museum’s digitized collections can’t be included in the Commons catalog.
Despite these concerns, the revamped database is a step in the right direction. The British Museum has been commended for the effort it put into this launch — not just for the high-resolution images and scans of the content, but also the number of tools and information the museum provides for each listing.
The database includes the name(s) of the original excavator who discovered the items, where the object was found, the materials it is made from, the technique used to craft it, its size and weight, its present condition, where it was acquired, its registration number and more. The collection is available here.