GitHub and Museums

Series of overlapping squares showing The size of 23,557 artworks in the Finnish National Gallery
The size of 23,557 artworks in the Finnish National Gallery

GitHub is exciting for museums. It’s a way for museums to participate in the febrile, weird, optimistic world of open source.

GitHub is scary for museums. It’s a weird word; it’s a weird site. Museums who do it well can benefit, museums who ignore it are also ignoring an amazing group of curious creatives.

For any non-profit, one of the first considerations for any endeavor is financial. How much will it cost? Cost is more than a dollar amount- there are also time-costs to consider- the time it takes to upload and establish, the time it takes to monitor/moderate, and the time-cost of keeping things updated.

Then, there are legal considerations. Copyrights¹, usage agreements, registrars, loan agreements, gift stipulations, individual agreements with living artists, and more. Many museums have entire Rights and Reproductions departments.

There is good news though, and that is the magical phrase “public domain.” What is public domain? From the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain: “The public domain is the realm of material — ideas, images, sounds, discoveries, facts, texts — that is unprotected by intellectual property rights and free for all to use or build upon. It includes our collective cultural and scientific heritage, and the raw materials for future expression, research, democratic dialogue and education.”

Although museums can have works that are restricted by very specific copyrights, museums can also have works that have passed into the public domain either through the passage of time or because the artist has chosen to do so. Works in the public domain are what you’ll most often find on museum GitHub accounts.

So public domain is open source? Not quite- “No, free and open-source software is not in the “public domain,” which would mean that it is not protected by copyright law. The software is copyrighted, but the copyright holder chooses to grant specific freedoms to the public through a license (such as the General Public License), and she can do this precisely because she owns the copyright. So, while public domain materials are free because they’re unprotected by intellectual property rights, open-source software is free because of private action. This is how the license works: it says that anyone may copy the source code and incorporate it into a new program, but if they do so and redistribute their work, their new program must also be covered by the same license, making it freely available for others to use and build upon. (The license thereby keeps the source code publicly available and encourages broader collaboration, innovation, testing, and use.) If you violate these terms, then the freedoms granted by the license disappear, and you are where you would be without the license — namely infringing the programmer’s copyright.” ([emphasis mine] source:

It’s this combination of public (the works in public domain) and private (the non-profit’s… everything else) that museums are still navigating in various ways.

Below is a look at some of the most active museum GitHub accounts and how they have approached the question of rights and licensing:

Museum: GitHub link: Posted rights/license:
Cooper Hewitt CC0 1.0 Universal, and requests attribution
Tate CC0 1.0 Universal, and requests attribution
Carnegie Museum of Art CCo 1.0 Universal, except for images, says to contact their R&R
Walters Art Museum Varies by repository- mostly CC0 1.0 Universal. Also saw GNU AFFERO GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE and Apache License. Has the email templates on GitHub, saw some hackathon projects
Harvard Art Museum Has a lot of code, terms of use in place @ API level
Indianapolis Museum of Art CC BY 3.0
MoMA CCo 1.0 Universal, except for images, says give attribution

How are museums using GitHub?

The Cooper Hewitt Museum released their collection on GitHub in 2012:

The Tate’s GitHub account appeared roughly 18 months after Cooper Hewitt’s- and it’s great. I love that they showcase artworks and digital visualizations people have made using the data here. Take a look at their examples section:

MoMA’s GitHub account appeared July 2015- this is a good article about it:

Also in 2015, the Andy Warhol Museum posted their digital strategy as a working document on their GitHub account, in a fantastic act of transparency and inclusion:

Today, searching GitHub with the terms “museum collection” pulls up 76 repositories²; this is a good general sense of museum activity in GitHub, specifically in terms of collection data. Take a look!

This link is also informative- it’s a collection of open-source museum projects:


These projects urge interaction and collaboration. I look forward to seeing many more added as more and more museums look to GitHub as a useful tool and community engagement oppertunity.

Valuable cultural institution resources:

Europeana Pro site:

Rights Statements for cultural heritage institutions:

OPenn: Good use-statement wording:

¹In the United States, Section 502 of copyright law has been referred to in legal cases pertaining to code and copyright ( For more on open source software licensing slides from a recent Drexel Law panel are available here:

²Which is exciting, unless you do the math- the International Council of Museums estimates there are 55,000 museums in the world. Which means that less than one-tenth of 1 percent (00.14 %) of museums have data publicly available on GitHub.

Virtual Reality Demo Day, NYC

Recently I had the opportunity to check out LoNyLa/Timewave’s Virtual Reality Demo Day in New York. The main reason I wanted to go was to check out the various physical hardware iterations for virtual reality- a technology that is growing at an amazing rate and has exciting implications for museums.

While I was there I was able to test every virtual reality headset on the market- from Oculus Rift to Google Cardboard. I also made a point to speak to each developer and noted their opinions about each product.

I was surprised to find that Oculus Rift was not the top choice- and neither was Google Cardboard! The main issue with Google Cardboard was the lens quality. Google Cardboard has created the cheapest VR headset option which is wonderful in terms of price accessibility, but to do so they reduced the quality of the lenses. A number of developers noted feeling nauseous after using Google Cardboard- something to consider when thinking about interactive/immersive experiences for the broadest possible audience. A shorter VR experience helps, and there are a number of museums using Google Cardboard, but having less devices of a higher quality is also a good option. Offering the public an opportunity to experience VR on a high-quality device they might not be able to afford on their own is also part of what museums can do to make art accessible.

What can museums do with virtual reality? I see two equally interesting options. First, museums can work with digital artists who are already using this medium as a form of expression- artists like Jon Rafman and Rachel Rossin for example. Some new media art being created today is being created specifically to be experienced in VR.

Second, museums can use VR to more deeply activate existing pieces in a collection- creating new ways of seeing what is already there. The Dali museum did this recently by offering a VR experience where people could go into a Dali painting; a completely immersive 3D experience.

I saw many similar things at Timewave’s Demo Day- “The Giftschrank (Poison Room)” “Dream within a Dream” and “Unboxed,” for example. “Unboxed,” by Jackson Tam, was especially interesting because as you moved around the environment (an inventor’s workshop) you could select objects on the wall and desk- so, for example, you’d see a newspaper article, select it, and it would come to you and be readable. Or, you could select a tool on the inventor’s workbench and a definition would come up. In essence, the label text/additional content wasn’t anchored to a wall in a museum gallery; it came to you.

More and more museums are using VR in galleries and exhibition spaces. Museums do not merely exist as physical structures holding physical objects- they’re spaces for inspiration, education, community, and creativity. It’s a digital space as well as a physical space, and the digital space has a far longer reach. Creating and supporting VR is a recognition of this.  

Of all the hardware at Timewave Festival’s Demo Day, HTC Vive was the top pick by far.

Learn more about the participants here:

Art and Open Source

Street art mural by the artist Blu, depicting a gigantic man made of bananas
Von Stefano.questioli in der Wikipedia auf Italienisch, CC BY 3.0,

Do artists make art to be collected? Or to be heard? The short answer is it’s up to the artist. It can be one or the other, or both, or neither. This question has been on my mind since I read this:

Blu spent all weekend destroying his artwork. The symbolic act was in protest of a Bologna exhibition which features more than 250 pieces of street art plucked from their urban settings and placed inside a museum. Blu objected to both the exhibit’s backers—prominent bankers—and its tactics of removing street art from the streets themselves.

More here in this Italian article written by Wu Ming:

Some quotes translated from the Italian:

“…politicians pretending to solve the contradictions of Bologna, a city which on the one hand criminalizes graffiti, puts 16-year-old artists on trial as criminals, praises “urban decorum”, and on the other hand celebrates herself as the cradle of street art and wants to take it for glory on the market.”

“We are faced with arrogant landlords who act as colonial governors and think they’re free to take murals off our walls. The only thing left to do is to make these paintings disappear, to snatch them from those claws, to make hoarding impossible.”

The people who take this action [obscuring the murals to prevent them being taken] can tell the difference between who has money, power and the highest offices, and who deploys creativity and intelligence.”

My understanding of Blu is that he makes art when it can be incorporated into the physical space of a city, seen either intentionally by those that seek his work or as a daily backdrop to the local people’s life- but always there. His work in XM24 space in Italy was groundbreaking and incorporated into larger protests of the time. But street artists rarely own what they write or paint on, so the decision to remove the murals and place them in a space that was separate from the streets, then further separated by an admission charge [13Euro regular price, 11Euro reduced (presumably students/seniors)], and finally even further separated from the public by the prospect of sale to conservative banking families- none of that was Blu’s decision or under his control. He felt that the only way to prevent this from happening- since he couldn’t buy the buildings or stop the bankers- was to destroy his own work, decades of it. To be in a place as an artist where one feels that the only actionable decision of artistic control is destruction- that’s a very difficult/brave decision.

I do want to stress that collating authentic art with the poverty of the artist is wrong. The idea that art is somehow more authentic if the labor is disconnected from commerce is a toxic idea that hurts the artists who have a drive to further their work/career, and also need to pay their bills. Blu does make money from his art- but- and here’s the crux- he makes money from the art that he chooses to sell. From what I can find, he has sold silkscreen prints and a DVD with time-lapse documentation of murals, hand-drawn animations, and other content. In a rare interview found here, Blu says,

“I sell some drawings and I make the money I need to go on with my projects.

I try to avoid other kind of works such as commissions from companies and advertising, which is something i don’t really like.

I’m not economically rich but I’m billionaire in happiness.”

Blu doesn’t want his murals sold. He doesn’t want them to move. Decay, yes. Be painted over and replaced by new street art? It happens. Taken? No. The location is a significant element of each mural. Every mural is photographed and the physical work is allowed to exist without the urgency of corporal preservation. So here’s an interesting thought about the difference between experiencing art and collecting it. Why assume that all art needs to last? I went through Wu Ming’s article and read Italian comments saying that the work was always intended to decay, that it did have a life span that included death, and that taking the murals out of their original space in order to preserve them went against these ideas of accessibility and impermanence. People spoke about having the murals take root in their memories- a daily commute that went past a certain one, or a significant moment where a mural looms in the background. They spoke about how sometimes the murals would suddenly appear and sometimes just as abruptly disappear- either by construction or a disgruntled landlord. They made a distinction between the Mona Lisa and Blu’s murals, for example, saying that the murals were less like a venerated, commissioned portrait and more analogous to wild animals. The idea is less that Blu’s art needs to be rescued by museums and collectors, to be preserved for an indefinite period of time, but rather that the mural is intentionally made as a living thing in a living environment- growing, changing, and sometimes disappearing, continuing to exist only in photographs and memories. 

One thing that stood out to me through reading more about this were glimmers of the concept of open source. This term has been living mostly in the tech world, so it’s interesting to see artists use it- it is a concept that some would describe as a philosophical belief/movement, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. As one of the commentators put it:

“Above all, there was the beauty of a concept: street art is for everyone or for no one, it cannot become a privilege of those who do the hoarding, it cannot become a tool of further privatization. If you want this, we prefer to disappear. It is a political action, ethics, pedagogical. And that makes nice even a gray wall.”

Open source embraces creativity, collaboration, transparency, and accessibility. Blu did not experience that with the Palazzo Pepoli – Museo della Storia di Bologna, and so in this instance, he preferred to disappear. Some people disagree with his decision. Some people supported him and helped paint over the murals in Bologna. Blu’s murals can still be found all around the world. His art is fascinating and thought-provoking and I look forward what he will create next.

More on this from Brooklyn Street Art and The Telegraph.