w Archives & Museum Informatics: Publishing: J. Trant, Enabling Educational Use of Museum Digital Materials, (MESL)

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Enabling Educational Use of Museum Digital Materials:

The Museum Educational Site Licensing (MESL) Project

by J. Trant
Getty Art History Information Program

A paper for the Electronic Imaging and the Visual Arts Conference, Florence, Italy, February 8-9, 1996.



The use of digital imaging and network communications technologies offers the promise of bringing cultural heritage collections out of museums and into the public eye. When captured and stored in digital form, images of works of art and artefacts - along with their accompanying textual descriptions - can be used in new, exciting ways, placing works in context rather than isolating them. Networked information resources remove some of the physical barriers to the enjoyment of cultural heritage collections, making them available to wider audiences, including those who might never normally enter a museum building.

Few markets are more primed to make use of museum collections in digital form than the educational community, where a strong tradition in creating and exploiting networked information resources exists (at least in the United States). College and university campuses are developing sophisticated networks, and enthusiastically embracing networked multi-media technologies. In the process, the nature of teaching and research is changing. For this transformation to be completed, however, a critical mass of digital information must exist, and it must be available in standard forms.

The creative development of interactive educational multi-media programs has been hampered, however, by difficulties in obtaining of quality content. Intellectual property rights agreement are needed which balance the interests of rights holders and the desires of those who use images for study, teaching and research. Such agreements must reflect a common understanding of the rights, permissions and restrictions associated with digital museum materials. A common framework for administering rights, which reflected widely accepted terms and conditions for the use of materials, would further the educational use of digital materials.

The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project (MESL) brings representative museums, colleges, and universities from the United States together to define the terms and conditions for educational use of museums' digital images and information on campus-wide networks. During this two-year experiment, launched in 1995, a select group of educational and collecting institutions are collaborating in good faith to study the capture, distribution, and educational use of digital images and their associated texts.

The MESL project is a collaboration of seven collecting institutions and seven universities,1 which is defining the terms and conditions governing the educational use of digitized museum images and related information.1 MESL participants are developing a model educational site license, testing and evaluating procedures for the collection and distribution of museums' digital images and information, and assessing the impact of this distribution, in both technical and economic terms. At the end of this experiment, which will run for two-academic years (until June 1997) the participants will propose a broadly-based system that could support ongoing distribution and educational use of museum images and text.

Why Site Licenses?

Many schemes have been suggested to manage intellectual property on the "information highway". The majority of these have focused on the development of metering systems, that operate on a 'pay per bit' model. For several reasons, this premise does not translate well into the educational or museum community. First, monitoring at this level of detail requires an investment in infrastructure and a commitment of systems resources which may be beyond the capability of many cultural or educational institutions. Secondly, charging for the use of information seems antithetical to intellectual exploration and learning, goals shared by both educational institutions and museums.

"Pay-per-bit" models may actually inhibit access to information. Who would be most penalized by limits on access? Both the student struggling to come to terms with the subject, and the scholar striving to develop an in-depth understanding of a particular area of research would generate disproportionately high charges. And who would be responsible for paying them? The individual themselves? The department? The institution? Would each user have a particular allowance? How would such an allocation be made? How can an institution budget for the acquisition of electronic resources, when there are neither set charges nor a ceiling on payments in place? How can finite resources be allocated when costs are unpredictable?

The site licensing model adopted by the MESL project addresses these concerns, and reflects the following principles:

The site-license model offers a means of satisfying these concerns. Through an annual subscription fee, an educational institution could gain access to a wide body of quality electronic information about many museum collections. This virtual archive (or selections from it) could be distributed on a campus network and made available to the full campus community. No specific charges would be incurred by the users of the information. Security requirements would be similar to those of maintaining the campus network as a whole, and would not require monitoring at the individual-access level.

Site licenses could be administered by a not-for-profit entity which acts as an intermediary between museums and educational institutions. A shared administrative framework would ease both the costs of distribution and the administration of rights. A common agreement would remove the institutional burden of negotiating licenses on a case-by-case basis, a very labor intensive proposition. The licensing of material would provide a constant revenue stream for the museum community, which could be used to add to the available stock of digital images. Educational institutions would have access to a predictable supply of quality images and information about works in museum collections, and would also have the opportunity to act as information providers, making works from their own special collections and archives available for distribution. A self-sustaining distribution system could be established, which would operate for the benefit of both participating museums and educational institutions.

MESL Progress to Date

The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project was structured to lay the ground-work for such a cooperative administration of the rights to use digital museum information for educational purposes. It is engaged in an experimental interchange of museum information, which enables the participants to identify and appreciate the issues involved, and propose a future direction based on collective experience.

Project participants were selected through a competitive Call for Participation issued in the fall of 1994. Since that time, over 4000 images and accompanying text records have been distributed. This interchange is governed by a Cooperative Agreement, signed by all participating institutions, which outlines the terms of the project and preliminary conditions of use.2 Programs for evaluating the impact of networked digital images on teaching, and assessing the economics of digital distribution of museum images are under development.

Inter-disciplinary project teams in each participating institution have contributed to the project's achievements. At the universities, staff from departments including computer services, art history, instructional technology and the library have collaborated in the creation of local delivery systems. On the museum side, the preparation and delivery of images and data has involved teams from information technology, registration, photo services, education, and curatorial departments.

The majority of the work in MESL is conducted in task forces, centered around specific issues. Seven working groups have been formed:

Each group is chaired by a MESL Project Team member, and has a Management Committee liaison.

The majority of MESL work takes place electronically.2 Each working group has its own listserv, for the discussion of specific issues. A general project listserv is used for updates on activities. WWW pages which document the work of the project are available at http://www.ahip.getty.edu/ mesl/home.html. This site contains both completed project documentation and work-in-progress. As a result, some sections are restricted to project participants. In recognition of the interest in the project, a listserv MESL-OBSERVE@AHIP.GETTY.EDU has been established to enable those not actively involved in the project to offer their comments and insights.

Cooperative Agreement

A Cooperative Agreement, outlining the terms of collaboration in the project, has been signed by all participating institutions.3 It offers the first articulation of 'acceptable use' under a possible site license. Images are made available for "educational use, including faculty research, teaching and student projects." Participants have agreed that images may be incorporated into student hypermedia projects, or faculty courseware. However, these products and the images themselves, are not to be redistributed beyond the participating educational institution's site, without the express written permission of the contributing museum. As the project progresses, a set of guidelines which further defines "educational use" will be developed. The MESL agreement has also provided a model for the participants' agreement signed in CIMI's Project CHIO.

Image Selection

The first distribution of MESL museum data was made to participating universities for the fall term of the 1995 academic year. Over 4,000 images and accompanying textual documentation have been made available on each of 7 university campuses. The selection of this test set of images involved a complex negotiation between participating museums and faculty who desired to use the images in teaching and research. The challenge was to minimize the demands placed on the museums for content, while satisfying the desires of the faculty for a coherent image set.

Initially, museums stated (at a general level) the digital images they had available, while universities stated (at a subject-level) their areas of interest. Where these overlapped, item level lists were provided to the universities for detailed review and selection. As museums were unable to commit significant resources to the creation of new digital image content specifically for the MESL project, universities had to chose from the slate of existing images, or from works for which photographic images existed that could be easily scanned.

Several other factors limited the selection of works from MESL museums. Initially, images which posed intellectual property issues, such as works made by living artists, works on loan to museum collections and works which entered the collection with specific donor restrictions were ruled out. (These issues will be addressed once the mechanics of distribution itself are worked out). Museums also selected images which had existing textual documentation of sufficient quality to be distributed to the universities.

These restraints made creating coherent image sets, that supported the teaching goals of the participating faculty, a challenge. In some cases, MESL museums were able to reorganize digitization schedules to make specific works available. In other cases, documentation was reviewed and revised. Direct contact between museum curators and university faculty produced some exciting results; for example, through negotiation, the Fowler Museum of Cultural History was able to assemble an image set in African art which met the pedagogical needs of faculty at Columbia University.

In the second data distribution, planned for the spring of 1996, we are experimenting with the use of WWW-based tools to facilitate this negotiation. This work is being facilitated by the Digital Image Center at the University of Virginia.

Data Distribution

Once the images were selected, museums provided images and text in electronic form to the University of Michigan, which agreed to act as MESL's 'Distribution Central'. Michigan assembled the image and text sets from all seven museums, duplicated the merged data set, and distributed it on CD-ROM to the participating universities, and to several museums who were also interested in mounting the data. FTP was later used to distribute updates to the text files. Each university then devised a strategy for distributing the data on its campus network, which responds to local needs and infrastructure.


To facilitate the creation of the merged data set, a MESL Data Dictionary was developed. This format, which looked closely at both the AITF Categories for the Description of Works of Art, and the evolving CIMI SGML DTD for museum objects, includes both structured and unstructured text.5

Structured museum text (i.e. text in database fields) is grouped into the following broad areas: Object Identification, Object Description; Credit Information; Pointers to Image Files; Pointers to Text Files; Image Capture Information; and Version Identification. This information is exported from museums' collections management systems, into an agreed upon tagged ASCII text format.

Unstructured text files (i.e. free text or prose which exists in electronic form) includes such types of information as Exhibition History; Publication History; Curatorial Notes; Conservation History; Bibliography; Published Texts and Unpublished Texts. This information was included in the data transferred to the museums as a strong interest was expressed by the participating faculty for in-depth analysis of the objects. These files are sent in text format, along with the structured data files for the objects.

A revised version of the MESL Data Dictionary will include further examples, and include guidelines for the presentation of data, to begin to address issues of consistency in the merged data, including questions of character sets and data. In addition, the University of Michigan has agreed to play a data validation role in the second distribution, to ensure the structural integrity of all database records distributed.


Images were distributed in the highest quality that the participating museums were willing to release. Color images were distributed in 24-bit (16.7 million colors) and grayscale images in 8-bit (256 shades of gray) files, at resolutions ranging from 758 x 512 pixels to 1536 x 1024 pixels. Image files were in one of four file formats: JFIF, with minimum JPEG compression; PhotoCD, Lossless Compressed TIFF; and GIF (for line art).

High-quality images were distributed to each of the campuses. Each university then made its own decisions about the creation of derivative images, such as thumbnails or screen-size images, based on the requirements of their local delivery system. This has resulted in some redundant processing, and the next distribution of images may reassess this methodology.

The experimental nature of MESL, however, may mitigate against a centralized approach. One of the goals of the project is to examine the individual choices made by each of the participating universities. Each has been encouraged to developed delivery systems which reflected their specific network infrastructures and instructional needs. As a part of the evaluation exercise, we will begin to identify what commonalties exist between these implementations,.

Academic Use

One of the key objectives of MESL is introduce museum digital images and information into the teaching and research activities of participating universities. In the short time since the images have been available on campuses, a number of faculty have integrated MESL images into their teaching plans. Each participating university has committed to using the image set in at least one course in each academic year of the project.

As an example, at the University of Maryland, Dr. Sally Promey used images in an American Landscapes: Art and Technology course offered in the fall of 1995. The digital images were projected during classes, which are held in a specially equipped teaching theater. The digital images also provided a vehicle for the development of collaborative projects between students in Art History and those enrolled in the Art Studio course. An art history student provides a verbal description of a MESL image. This is passed to studio student, who then creates a new work based on the description. The two students then collaborate on an analysis of the two works of art.

At the University of Michigan, Dr. Howard Besser has students testing content-based retrieval systems and examining rights-holder protection schemes in an Image Databases course. Dr. Olivia Frost will be using MESL images for team-based learning in a course on the organization of non-textual information resources.

Evaluation and Measurement

The availability of the MESL data on seven campuses provides a great opportunity to assess the impact of electronic resources on the teaching process. The MESL Evaluation Working Group is defining an evaluation and measurement program which will document and evaluate the distribution of museum images and information over campus networks. Baseline data, documenting teaching using photographic images, will be collected and compared with that gathered from a number of studies.

The impact of the use of images in classrooms and across campus networks for research and individual study will be measured and evaluated using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Information gathered from observation, interviews and other interactions with users and potential users of the systems will be supplemented by statistics derived from system transaction monitoring, survey questionnaires and other statistical methods, to gain a full picture of how system use, instruction and learning are affected.

Economics of Information

MESL provides a testbed for the analysis of the economics of a future museum Rights and Reproductions Organization (RRO). Such a not-for-profit organization would be administered by rights holders to distribute museum content for educational uses, and could potentially become a vehicle for collective licensing for commercial uses as well. In order to be positioned to carry their activities forward after the end of their two-year project, MESL participants are undertaking research on the costs and benefits of such an organization. An inter-disciplinary team of academically-based researchers drawn from economics, business, arts management and information telecommunications systems will be assembled to identify and analyze the costs associated with the creation and distribution of digitized museum information. (David Bearman is reporting on the development of this study, elsewhere on the EVA program.)


The electronic distribution of information enables cultural institutions to reach a broad audience. This adoption of communications technologies could enable museums to enhance their educational mission and re-establish their relevance, by delivering quality content which can be readily integrated into established and developing curriculum. To realize the potential of electronic access to cultural heritage, however, museums need to explore the nature and exploitation of their digital information resources. The MESL project is building our understanding of the educational use of museums' digital knowledge, and establishing the preconditions for the efficient and effective interchange of information between these two communities.

Further Information

-- Note: Links to the MESL project site are no longer active, as this site is no longer maintained by theJ. Paul Getty Trust.

The MESL WWW site can be found at http://www.ahip.getty.edu/mesl/home.html


1 Participating museums: Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles; George Eastman House, Rochester, New York; Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Library of Congress, Washington, DC; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.
Participating universities: American University, Washington, D.C.; Columbia University, New York; Cornell University, Ithaca; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; University of Maryland at College Park; University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Dearborn, and Flint; and University of Virginia, Charlottesville. The MESL project was launched by the Getty Art History Information Program, in association with MUSE Educational Media. MESL is administered by AHIP and advised by a Management Committee comprised of Maxwell Anderson, David Bearman, Howard Besser, Karl Katz, Patti McClung (MESL Project Manager) and Jennifer Trant.

2 Three project meetings, involving the Project Coordinators and Working Group Chairs, have also been held (in February, June and December of 1995).

3 Copies of the Cooperative Agreement are available upon request. It can also be found on the MESL WWW site.

4 Copies of the MESL Data Dictionary are available upon request. It can also be found on the MESL WWW site.

Last updated: April 14, 1996

Text reformatted: Jan 13, 2003.

Informatics: The interdisciplinary study of information content, representation, technology and applications,
and the methods and strategies by which information is used in organizations, networks, cultures and societies.