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.