The Gordon Collection, Digitization and Open Access at the Rijksmuseum

In January 2017 I spent an afternoon at the Rijksmuseum with Duncan Bull, Cecile van der Harten and Peter Gorgels. A South African who has lived in The Netherlands for some decades, Duncan is heading up the curation of the Robert Jacob Gordon Collection as part of the Goede Hoop: South Africa and The Netherlands from 1600 exhibition that opened on February 17. Cecile is the Head of the Image Department at the Rijksmuseum and gave me a personal tour of the museum’s digitization facilities. And Peter manages the Rijksmuseum’s digital communication.
I was invited to meet with Duncan and Cecile because Africa Media Online had digitized the document collection of the Robert Jacob Gordon Collection for The Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg. Robert Jacob Gordon was the last Dutch governor of the Cape Colony and The Brenthurst Library have his writings as part of their collection whilst the Rijksmuseum hold his sketches, maps and paintings. Digitising the collections held at both institutions enabled the possibility of presenting the complete collection for the first time.

A print screen of the front page of Rijksmuseum’s Robert Jacob Gordon Collection website showing one of the Brenthurst Library’s Gordon Collection manuscripts that Africa Media Online digitised

Duncan emailed me recently to alert me to the fact that they have just launched the Robert Jacob Gordon Collection website that brings together both the manuscript and the artworks collections. They really have done a beautiful job of enabling one to get a close look at items in the collection. If you click on the Writings and Drawings section you can get a really close up view of the materials from the Brenthurst Library that we digitised. When he received the images Duncan emailed to say, “Thank you very much indeed for the excellent work you did scanning the Brenthurst MSS. They are exactly what we wanted, and are an enormous help.” And his colleague, Geoffrey Badenhorst, also of South African extraction, emailed to say, “It must have been an immense task to digitalising all the manuscripts. We are ever so pleased with the result.” That response was certainly very satisfying, meeting the expectations of an institution World-reknowned for its exacting standards in the digitisation area.
I spent time with Cecile looking at the technology the Rijksmuseum is using to capture artifacts and rare manuscripts. It confirmed to me that we have pursued the right course in shifting across from scanners to medium format digital cameras. They too use Broncolor lights but went the Hasselblad camera and digital back at a time when Phase One had not started to develop systems specifically for the digitisation of heritage collections. Staff Photographer Henni van Beek showed me the specialised copy table that they had manufactured for the digitisation of rare books and I got to see a number of their studios digitising various types of artifacts. The image department is at the heart of the Rijksmuseum’s open access strategy. By 2020 they hope to have digitised 1.1 million artworks!

Cecile van der Harten Head of the Image Department at the Rijksmuseum (left) in one of the studios with Staff Photographer Henni van Beek (at the computer on the right) with their setup to capture rare manuscripts

Peter Gorgels has overseen the development of the Rijksmuseum’s award-winning website. “We only have 8,000 artworks on display at the museum, yet we have 1.1 million artworks in storage. So digitization is a way to create accessibility,” he said.
Peter and his department created the concept of the Rijksstudio where over 100,000 images of artworks from the museum are made available in high resolution (2,500 pixels x 2,500 pixels) for download and for re-use. “In the past, we were really high-brow and stuffy”, Peter said. The museum spent some years doing a complete renovation and so had a lot of time to digitise their collections. “When we reopened we wanted to make our collections really accessible.”

“The collections belongs to everyone,” he said, “The artworks become ambassadors for the museum. Making them open access is in line with the mission of the museum.” The artworks are all out-of-copyright works and the museum runs an open access policy where they believe that the public have the right to access the artworks and create derivative works.
“In the first year that we launched Rijksstudio use of the images was restricted to private use. We then discovered that the profit from selling images was very little. So then we decided to open it up completely fitting in with the thinking of Creative Commons and Wikkicommons. We found the line between commercial and non-commercial is very thin so in the end we went for simplicity. It is actually hard work to make money from licensing and so it was easier just to make it all open.” Peter and his team run a competition every year called the Rijksstudio Award where designers are encouraged to make creative derivative works inspired by works presented on the Rijksstudio. “That people can recreate and use the artworks for commercial use makes them relevant for now. We do, however, ask for credit and people are not allowed to use Rijksmuseum logo because brand value is very high. The value of the digital images, on the other hand, is low.”

Even the architecture of the revamped Rijksmuseum speaks of openness, accessibility and simplicity, values they have carried through to all of their interactions with the public, including their online presence. This area including their coffee shop and bookshop is open to the public without a ticket

Within the Rijksstudio website, users can curate their own collections, much like on Pinterest and share them across social media. Users can even upload the derivative works they may have created. Certainly, the strategy seems to have worked. “The number of visitors greatly increased,” said Peter. He admits, however, “It is hard to tell if people who are coming to the website also come through the door. The average number of visitors per day since we reopened has doubled.”
“A lot of people are afraid to make their collections available online thinking that people won’t come back to the museum, but the opposite has happened. Seeing the real art is different to seeing it online. A museum visit is also a social thing.”
“When we launched it there was an immediate success that we did not expect. Now after four years later we are still being invited to give lectures to other museums and institutions around the world. This has grown our global brand significantly.”
The Rijksmuseum does have significant public funding, a vast collection and a strong global brand which together has created a “perfect storm” of bringing vast numbers of visitors through their doors. They are also situated in a city with other globally significant museums. Amazingly, the strategy of the relaunched Rijksmuseum has had an amazing impact on the whole city. “The number of tourists in Amsterdam as a whole has increased and housing prices have gone up dramatically. It has been acknowledged that the new golden age of Amsterdam started with the launch of the new Rijksmuseum.” Visitor numbers at the Van Gogh Museum in the same area of the city have also doubled.

The splash page of the Rijksmuseum website showcasing the new “Goede Hoop: South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600” exhibition. The Rijksmuseum website is purposefully picture driven with large pictures that show close detail

While this strategy has been a wonderful success for the Rijksmuseum and for Amsterdam as a whole, it does not necessarily translate directly to smaller institutions that need to create income streams to survive. At the CEPIC Congress last year I heard Jeff Cowton of the Wordsworth Trust Museum in the UK speak alongside Sandra Powlette of the British Library about their need to license material as a small museum acknowledging their differing circumstance to a large publically funded institution such as the British Library. As Cecile van der Harten said to me at the Rijksmuseum when I asked her about them giving away the high-resolution images of their artworks, “Of course, we can afford it!”
Here is an interview with Peter covering much of what we spoke about when I visited him.