Collections Online, Open Access, Wikimedia Commons: The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Expands Its Online Content

Humboldt Forum

Beginning immediately, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin will be making high-res reproductions of works from its 19 collections and institutes freely available on the new website (German only). Furthermore, the conditions on using reproductions of works that are in the public domain will be relaxed, and digital reproductions will be gradually added to the Wikimedia Commons platform. There are already more than 270,000 objects from various epochs and regions to be discovered, explored and investigated online.

Collections Online: The Online Portal for the Collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

As the new digital window into the exhibitions and storage locations of the 19 collections and institutes that make up the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the website will replace the existing SMB-digital database (which has been active since 2012) and will be aimed not just at scholars and specialists in the field, but also at the general public. Drawing on surveys and user-centred methodologies, the modules “Research”, “Themes” and “Tours” have been developed, which are intended to digitally complement and deepen the experience of the museum for individual visitors. 

In the “Research” module, the digitally accessible collections can be explored by way of a search form with full-text functionality. An array of filters provide users with a suite of tools to facilitate efficient searches. The content of this module is continually growing; with collections staff regularly updating and expanding the available material. Alongside detailed information about the objects, the new portal will also feature high-res images of the objects, which will have a zoom function and are also available for download, along with additional related material, such as object documentation and audiovisual material. The next step will be a publicly accessible online interface (an API), which will make public domain museum material freely available to users. 

The “Themes” module is currently still in development. It will provide more in-depth information on, and high-res images from, a whole host of permanent and special exhibitions, as well as narrative content, curated showcases, videos and interactive elements from the diverse cosmos of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Functioning as a kind of digital preparation and accompaniment to a visit to the museum, the “Tours” module will give museum-goers a hand in planning and organising their time on site. Tours with helpful descriptions of the routes, stimulating questions and additional contextual information will help to enhance the experience of the museum for individual visitors. 

Another set of milestones will be a series of more inclusive offerings in simplified German and German sign language. An English version of these features is also being produced.

The online collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are one of the many education and audience-engagement offerings to come out of “(De-)Coding Culture – Cultural Skills in the Virtual Realm”, a sub-project of “museum4punkt0 – Digital Strategies for the Museum of the Future”. Launched in 2017, this collaborative project funded by the German Federal Commissioner for Cultural and Media Affairs has developed a broad spectrum of applications and prototypes that take the experience of a visit to the museum into the digital realm in a whole range of ways.

Creative Commons Licences for High-Res Object Reproductions 

With the recent amendments to copyright law in Germany and the “Open Science Policy” of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is exploring new possibilities for the use of its digital content. This will allow the most extensive access possible to object reproductions and information about the cultural assets that are preserved in the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Additionally, users will be offered wide-ranging possibilities for re-using the object reproductions and accompanying material. 

The forms of use that are permitted are clearly outlined through the use of Creative Commons licences. A significant portion of the object reproductions will bear the “Public Domain Mark”, meaning that they can be used without any restrictions at all. The rights of third parties and principles of fairness such as the “Care Principles for Indigenous Data Governance” will be observed. The image credits on the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s webpages will gradually be updated to reflect these new conditions of use. Scans in even higher resolutions can be requested from the individual collections and institutes.   

Public Domain Works on Wikimedia Commons

Alongside this, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Institut für Museumforschung will be making reproductions of public domain works and their associated metadata freely available as open access material on Wikimedia Commons, a free media repository that forms part of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation.   

To launch the project, some 400 objects from the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin will soon be up on Wikimedia Commons, making them available to be used right around the world. The collection of open access reproductions will then be continuously expanded. Our goal is to make reproductions of as many of the cultural artefacts preserved by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin as possible freely accessible to the public. All the information provided on the objects has been approved by the curators of the various collections. The selection process is guided exclusively by whether or not the material can legally be placed on Wikimedia Commons. 

By actively posting this material using the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s official account, we ensure that both the details about the objects and the legal information on the digital files reflect current research findings.  

With our open-access strategy, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is taking another, important step toward a democratisation of the digital realm. As a research institution that forms part of a global scholarly community, digital transformation is just as important to us as boosting the visibility of the cultural heritage we safeguard. The features and content we are currently developing represent mere intermediate steps, which will be regularly expanded upon. We look forward to receiving your user feedback on this work. 

Christina Haak, Deputy Director-General of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin