December 10, 2008

Images, History, Control

Earlier this year I had a small, well, incident with the local historical society (which shall remain nameless). I used one of the images from their online site on a history-oriented post...and of course I cited the source page, the museum, and provided a clear link to their site. About a week later I received a terse and formal email telling me to take the image down, explaining that their images are not "clip art." It was, they informed me, strictly a pay to play situation if I wanted to have the actual image on my page (note: the photograph was from 1928 and the actual photographer was not cited).


I responded with an email, basically asking why the museum felt that policing the use of their images in this way was necessary--especially if people are giving proper attribution. I also made the point that the only way that my particular non-commercial and academic use of the image was even FOUND was because I had linked back and attributed the museum. I also explained that I felt the museum's policies regarding the images went against its mission purpose, which is supposedly to share history with the local community.

I received yet another email in response that explained (in somewhat condescending terms) the costs involved with curating and maintaining a large photographic collection. I was also told that the museum tries to generate revenue everywhere it can, because it is run on a relatively low budget, and receives no government funding.

In a final email, I wrote that I understand that there are high costs of maintaining an archive, and that I understand that the museum budget is very limited. At the same time, I asserted my view that charging people for non-commercial, personal, and academic use of screen resolution images is a little excessive. I also think it comes from a pre-internet model of curation, in which images are highly controlled because of the costs involved in reproduction and distribution. I sent the museum a copy of the use guidelines of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in hopes that they might get a little inspiration.* Finally, I wrote that I think the museum is actually DISCOURAGING proper attribution with its policies, and encouraging people to take images outright. Either that, or they are discouraging people from using, linking to, and sharing the online material--which in the end is a loss of free exposure for the museum.

The politics of image use online is of course very complicated. I do understand the position of the museum, in that they are trying to stay afloat and get everything out of their collection as possible. At the same time, this kind of control of historical photographs just does not sit well with me. I understand and I don't understand. One interesting way to look at this whole issue is anthropologically. How does the museum function? What is the structure of its organization, who works there, and for what reason(s) do they work there? What are the discourses that the museum uses to represent its mission? The museum is a collective political and economic organization that has been able to amass an archive of photographs, label itself as the community purveyor of information, and charge the local population to look at its own past. At least, that's ONE way to look at it.

There are power inequalities and problematic histories beneath. What are the stories behind the photographs themselves? Who took them, and who is pictured? Did the subjects grant permission to the photographer? (in many cases, such as those that include local Native Americans, I doubt it) How were the photographs acquired, and what under what terms were they taken into the museum?

A lot of this is about power, and the fact that so many people so easily accept the museum as the rightful guardian of history, despite the actualities of the past. Museums and other institutions often get a free pass because so many of us accept the idea that they are the rightful owners of these kinds of historical objects. I think it's a good idea to remain a little skeptical, and to always ask questions--despite the official statements about legal rights, noble goals, and such.

*The Met, for its part, allows people to use images--unaltered--as long as there is proper attribution as spelled out in the terms and conditions.

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