Archives & Museum Informatics








last updated:
October 7, 2014 2:55 PM

J. Trant, The Museum Educational Site Licensing (MESL) Project

Spectra, Winter 1994-95, 19-21.


  1. Introduction
  2. The Need for the Project
  3. Project Participants
  4. Management Committee
  5. Project Methodology
  6. Project Goals
  7. Progress Reports
  8. Conclusion


Few technologies have excited the museum and educational communities with their potential as much as digital imaging and networked communications. Digital imaging offers the possibility to make our cultural heritage broadly available. Images are easily distributed in new, exciting ways - and can be linked with text, 3-D images and sound to create a different kind of museum experience, one which places works in context rather than isolates them. Distributing of digital images over communications networks removes physical barriers to the enjoyment of cultural heritage collections, making them available to wider audiences, and bringing those who might never enter a museum into contact with their past and present. Together, these technologies are changing the nature of teaching and research in ways never before envisioned. For this transformation to be completed, however, a critical mass of digital information must exist, and it must be available in standard forms.

Few issues have hampered the creative development of interactive educational multi-media programs with the presence of intellectual property. Just the specter of an endless round of letters each asking for the permission to use a specific image, has kept many projects on the drawing board. The development of imaging systems requires a complex balancing of the interests of rights holders and the desires of those who use images for study, research or entertainment. A common framework of rights, permissions and restrictions would enable the development of imaging systems.

The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project (MESL) is one way the Getty AHIP Imaging Initiative is working to bridge the gap between image users and rights holders. AHIP has played a founding role in this two year collaboration, which brings representative museums, colleges and universities together to define the terms and conditions for educational use of museum images and information on campus-wide networks. Launched in association with MUSE Educational Media, the Museum Educational Site Licensing Project will develop methods and guidelines for the academic use of digitized museum-owned materials at colleges and universities. Seven selected educational institutions and seven museums or libraries will collaborate in good faith to define terms of image capture and distribution, and develop guidelines for the use of images of works from museum collections. The project is undertaken in the interests of exploring and promoting the educational benefits of digital access to museum collections through campus networks.

The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project brings together interested institutions in partnership to develop and test administrative, technical and legal mechanisms that will eventually make it possible to deliver large quantities of high-quality images from museums to diverse academic institutions. Within the project a simplified frame of reference has been adopted initially: museums will provide images and information; educational institutions will enable networked access to the visual and textual data and test-use of images for educational purposes. Together, project participants will define the terms and conditions that could govern the future distribution and educational use of museum images and information, put in place a framework of agreements and design an administrative structure that will enable the routine delivery of high-quality museum images and information to all educational institutions.

The Need for the Project

Intellectual property rights in the digital arena are without clear legislative guidelines and there are few precedents in case law. The legal framework has been slow to respond to the challenge of this new communications paradigm: laws are by nature conservative. If the museum and educational communities are mutually to benefit from the opportunities posed by new technologies, they must work together to define the conditions of their collaboration. Site licensing agreements will ensure that the needs and concerns of both sides are met. Developing these licenses collaboratively will make them broadly applicable. Common administrative mechanisms will remove the burden of negotiating licensing on an item by item basis, something which is now a very labor intensive proposition.

Without collective action we risk a log-jam. Within the educational community demand for access to digital content increases. Campuses are "wired" internally and connected externally, but what is to be communicated on these networks? Instructional technology departments are making more and more creative use of computer technology for educational purposes, but often lack the rights to use core materials. In some schools, digitization projects have been undertaken without a clear understanding of the rights and restrictions involved. In others, projects are on hold, pending some hoped-for resolution. Neither of these strategies offers much promise for the presence of cultural heritage information on educational networks.

Tom Hickerson, director of the division of rare and manuscript collections at the Cornell University Library and a project participant., put it this way: "One of the main reasons we don't have on-line classrooms in the humanities and the arts like we do in the sciences and engineering is simply the lack of information available in digital form." However, much research is still needed to understand how best to integrate digital information into the teaching process. "We aren't going to see the resources devoted to developing large databases of material until we can demonstrate their value. The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project will push us toward those practical uses."

The museum community is highly aware of how imaging technology can make collections available. There is, however, an equally strong fear of losing control of the images if they are released in digital form. Digital images are easily duplicated and altered, and they quickly become separated from the information which originally accompanied them. What standards are needed to ensure that images are accurately described? What security measures can be put in place to prevent images from being altered or further distributed? How can the integrity of the digital record be preserved? At present, all museums are struggling with these questions in isolation. The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project brings the expertise of academic computing to the museum community - offering the promise of technological means to track image use.

Museum rights and reproductions departments are daily faced with requests to use images of the collection in digital form, and they are unsure how to respond. What fees should be charged for what uses? What restrictions should be placed on use? And what will fund this new activity in a time of economic restraint? A constant stream of revenue from site licensing could be used to add to the museums' stock of digital images. The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project will explore all these issues, and develop a model for the ongoing administration of educational site licenses.

The time is ripe for collaboration, and museum and universities are natural partners. They have common interests and complimentary skills. Building links between museums and education will help promote mutually compatible standards that stress the quality of digitized information and protect investment in its creation.

Project Participants

The participants in the Museum Educational Site Licensing Project were selected through a competitive process. Over eighty institutions responded to a Call for Participation issued in September, 1994. From these proposals, the project management committee, comprised of experts in the museum, digital imaging, and information networking fields, selected six museums and seven universities to participate in the first year of the project. (The Library of Congress was subsequently invited to participate.) If progress is smooth, additional institutions will be added to the project in its second year. The following institutions are participating in the Museum Educational Site Licensing Project:



Participating organizations have committed staff time and technical resources to the project. Together they will form an interdisciplinary team of experts in art history, instructional technology, museum collections documentation, and academic computing, ensuring that all stakeholder's points of view are represented. Multi-disciplinary teams at each institution will ensure an exceptional level of experience and expertise is available to the project.

Management Committee

The project is guided by a six member management committee:

Maxwell Anderson
Director, Michael C. Carlos Museum and
Chair, Information Technology Committee,
Association of Art Museum Directors
David Bearman
Archives and Museum Informatics
Howard Besser
School of Information and Library Studies,
University of Michigan
Clifford Lynch
Director, Library Automation,
Office of the President, University of California
Geoffrey Samuels
Director, MUSE Multimedia Study Group
Jennifer Trant
Manager, Imaging Initiative,
Getty Art History Information Program

Project Methodology

The core of the Museum Educational Site Licensing Project is a structured test of the collection, distribution and use of museum images and information on university campuses. A pilot project, in which the participants define solutions to these issues, is a practical way to test under real, but controlled conditions, how museums and academic institutions can collaborate. During the 1995-96 and 1996-97 academic years, digitized images and documentation will be distributed through different types of campus networks. Technical means of image collection, and distribution and methods for ensuring the security of the imagebase will be tested against requirements defined by the project participants. Representatives will meet regularly to evaluate progress and to develop the needed procedural and licensing framework.

The works of art used in the study will be selected by the museums on the basis of criteria suggested by the universities. Educational participants have been encouraged to propose a wide variety of teaching and research uses for the materials. Faculty from each university have committed to use the test images and data in at least one course in each academic year. Throughout the project, faculty and student use will be monitored and evaluated by experts in educational technology, providing concrete comparative data about the use of digital information as an educational tool.

Project Goals

At the end of the two year project, model site licensing agreements governing the educational use of museum images and information on university and college campuses will be available. Procedures for collecting and distributing museum images and information will have been developed and tested, and the framework for a broadly-based system for distributing museum images and information to the academic community will be in place. A permanent administrative mechanism to continue distribution and broaden participation beyond the original project team members will be proposed. This will enable more museums to make their digital collections available and more educational institutions to use the images and information in educational programs.

Our goal is to develop a means to license and deliver any museum content to any educational institution. To make this possible, parallel initiatives in other national jurisdictions are being encouraged. Collaborative agreements could then be developed for reciprocal licensing arrangements, on a bi-lateral basis.

In addition to addressing licensing and administrative concerns, the MESL project will produce evaluative reports documenting the procedures employed in the project. User studies will assess the ways and means by which the images and information were used, and will provide a wealth of information regarding searching strategies, image quality needs, user tolerance levels, and the adequacy of image description standards and access vocabularies. Comparative technical data, gathered from each site, will demonstrate the effectiveness of specific architecture's and system topologies. Because universities will make their own best judgments about how to integrate the test imagebase into their campus networks, we will have hard data to compare such strategies as compression techniques, disk caching, distributed storage and secondary storage devices. These will be assessed in terms of how well they perform in actually delivering images to the educational user.

Progress Reports

The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project has established a network of interested observers to enable those not participating in its discussions to follow its progress. A project listserv will solicit input on areas of concern to the broad community, and drafts of documents concerning such issues as security requirements will be distributed for comment. [old contact details deleted]


The Getty Art History Information Program is delighted to have been able to play a catalytic role in the formation of the Museum Educational Site Licensing Project. We look forward to the development of solutions that will serve both the museum and the educational communities -- solutions that will be stronger because of the collaborative nature of their development. The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project is taking a step towards resolving a critical issue facing the development of museum and educational multi-media programs. Its success will enable the ongoing distribution of museum images and information over campus networks for educational use, ensuring that the wealth of our cultural heritage is made available for teaching, research, and study.

Last updated: February 13, 1995

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.