Many museums post their collections online, but the Rijksmuseum here has taken the unusual step of offering downloads of high-resolution images at no cost, encouraging the public to copy and transform its artworks into stationery, T-shirts, tattoos, plates or even toilet paper.
The museum, whose collection includes masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Mondrian and van Gogh, has already made images of 125,000 of its works available through Rijksstudio, an interactive section of its Web site. The staff’s goal is to add 40,000 images a year until the entire collection of one million artworks spanning eight centuries is available, said Taco Dibbits, the director of collections at the Rijksmuseum.
“We’re a public institution, and so the art and objects we have are, in a way, everyone’s property,” Mr. Dibbits said in an interview. “‘With the Internet, it’s so difficult to control your copyright or use of images that we decided we’d rather people use a very good high-resolution image of the ‘Milkmaid’ from the Rijksmuseum rather than using a very bad reproduction,” he said, referring to that Vermeer painting from around 1660.
Until recently, museums had been highly protective of good-quality digital versions of their artworks, making them available only upon request to members of the press or to art historians and scholars, with restrictions on how they could be used. The reasons are manifold: protecting copyrights, maintaining control over potentially lucrative museum revenues from posters or souvenirs and preventing thieves or forgers from making convincing copies.
There is also the fear, as described by the critic Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that a piece can lose its aura, or authenticity, when it is reproduced so often that it becomes too familiar — cheapening the “Mona Lisa,” for instance.
In recent years, though, as the Google Art Project has begun to amass a global archive of images with the cooperation of museums and the Internet has made it impossible to stem the tide of low-quality reproductions, institutions are rethinking their strategy.
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