Archives & Museum Informatics








last updated:
October 7, 2014 2:55 PM

Exploring New Models for Administering Intellectual Property: The Museum Educational Site Licensing (MESL) Project

J. Trant

A paper prepared for the 33rd annual Data Processing Clinic, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, March 25, 1996.


Section I

Section II

Information Collection and Distribution

Each MESL collecting institution agreed to make at least 1000 images and associated information available to the educational participants over the course of the project. Images were supplied in as high a quality as the participating museum was comfortable releasing, and in the file format they had available. Text was reformatted according to a project-defined Data Dictionary. This information was collected by the University of Michigan, duplicated, and distributed to participating educational institutions. Each university then made its own decisions regarding deployment of that data on its campus network.

This strategy acknowledged the diverse nature of the technological infrastructures on each of the participating university campuses. By separating the content from the deployment systems, it has been possible to leverage the investments already made on each of the campuses. This also acknowledges the heterogeneous nature of the participating insitutions, and the difficulty of developing consensus on a common deployment strategy at the outset of the project.

The varying deployment strategies are now the subject of an evaluation program, that will explore the choices made in each of the MESL implementations on campus. As the same data set has been delivered in all seven circumstances, we have the opportunity to identify the pros and cons of particular interface design and information structure strategies.

Use of Museum Information

From its outset the MESL project has encouraged the broadest possible use of the information made available. As well as supporting teaching and research in Humanities disciplines (including art history, history, anthropology, cultural and religious studies), museum information has been used in multimedia development, (including communications and interface design analysis), and information and computer science (including research into image database access, image description, search and retrieval, and image processing). For example, in the first year of the project MESL images have also been used in joint studio and art history projects at the University of Maryland, a Religious Studies course at the University of Virginia, an Information Science course at the University of Michigan, a history of Photography course at the University of Illinois, an Art History course at American University, and the Art Humanities course required for all undergraduates at Columbia University.


The second year of the MESL project will focus on evaluating and documenting the experience of making over 8000 museum images available on campus networks. This will include profiling the distribution systems developed on each of the campuses, assessing the interface choices and delivery options made in each MESL implementation, gathering statistics about use, conducting a study of the benefits of the availability of the information and working with faculty and students to assess the impact of integrating new technologies into the curriculum.

The distribution system will also be documented, and a report developed which offers recommendations regarding technical standards and requirements based on the MESL experience, and outlines areas for future exploration. The impact of the project on museum documentation procedures will also be studied, and requirements for information export from collections documentation systems defined. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has also funded a study of the economics of the distribution of visual information which will use the MESL project as a case study, and examine the costs and benefits of the introduction of new technologies to manage visual resource collections.

These evaluative reports will provide a clear statement of the costs and benefits of introducing digital museum informatiton into the educational community.


There are many potential benefits for research and teaching if high-quality museum images and associated information can be made over campus networks for educational purposes. For this to be possible, however, museums and educational institutions need to define a common framework for information collection, distribution and use. The MESL project has brought together museums and universities to explore the administrative, legal and technical issues underlying the development of a new model for the distribution of museum intellectual property for educational use. In the first eighteen months of the project, through the experimental distribution of over 8,000 museum images and associated information, MESL participants have demonstrated both the feasibility and the desirability of such an alliance. In the project's second year, this experience will be codified and reported, and the results shared.

The success of the Museum Educational Site Licensing Project has been built upon the contributions and enthusiasm of its participants. Project teams have actively embraced the challenges that developing a new distribution model has placed on their technical infrastructures, reassessed conceptions of information distribution and licensing, and redesigned curriculum to take advantage of new resources. As a result, the students in MESL institutions have had an unprecedented opportunity to explore, in depth, parts of the collections of significant US museums. This glimpse of the potential for new technology to bring knowledge and appreciation of cultural heritage to a new generation, whose interest is essential for its preservation, it is in itself justification for the struggle to redefine our methods of providing access to collection, and should provide sufficient motivation for both museums and universities to face the challenges of redefining their traditional approaches to the negotiation of intellectual property rights.

rev. 1996/06/26


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.