Archives & Museum Informatics








last updated:
October 7, 2014 2:55 PM

J. Trant

The Museum Educational Site Licensing (MESL) Project: An Update

Spectra, vol. 23, no. 3, Spring 1996, 32-34.


  1. Introduction [1]
  2. Why Site Licenses?
  3. MESL Progress to Date
  4. Cooperative Agreement
  5. Image Selection
  6. Data Distribution
  7. Academic Use
  8. Evaluation and Measurement
  9. Economics of Information
  10. Conclusion
  11. Notes


The MESL project is a collaboration of seven collecting institutions and seven universities, which is defining the terms and conditions governing the educational use of digitized museum images and related information.[2] MESL participants are developing a model educational site license, testing and evaluating procedures for the collection and distribution of museums¹ 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 ³information highway². The majority of these have focused on the development of metering systems, that operate on a Œpay per bit¹ 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 institutions. Secondly, charging for the use of information seems antithetical to intellectual exploration and learning, goals shared by both educational institutions and museums.

³Pay-per-bit² 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. Project participants were selected through a competitive Call for Participation issued in the fall of 1994. Since that time, two project meetings have been held (in February and June of 1995), a Cooperative Agreement has been signed outlining the terms of the project and preliminary conditions of use, and the first set of images and text has been distributed. 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 project¹s achievements. At participating 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 involved teams from information technology, registration, photo services, education, and curatorial departments.

Seven working groups have been formed: Documentation and Distribution; Monitoring and Security; Base Measurement; Evaluation; Faculty Training and Support; Content Selection; and the World Wide Web. Each group is chaired by a MESL Project Team member, and has a Management Committee representative as well. The majority of MESL work takes place electronically. 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 are in development, and will be available through the Imaging Initiative of the Getty Art History Information Program (

Cooperative Agreement

A Cooperative Agreement, outlining the terms of collaboration in the project, has been signed by all participating institutions. 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 ³educational use² will be developed. The MESL agreement has also provided a model for the participants agreement signed in CIMI's Project CHIO.[3]

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 distributed on 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.

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 MESL¹s ŒDistribution Central¹. 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.[4]

Structured museum text (i.e. text in database fields) is grouped into the following 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 museums¹ 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.


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. Several issues have arisen from the distribution of the textual information as well, including questions of character sets and data formats, which will also be reassessed in future distributions.

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 this academic year.

At the University of Maryland, Dr. Sally Promey is using images in an American Landscapes: Art and Technology course. The images are projected during classes, which are held in a specially equipped teaching theater. Students are also working on projects in collaboration with students 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.


In the coming century, museums will need to rely on the electronic distribution of information to reach their publics. This adoption of communications technologies could enable museums to enhance their educational mission and re-establish their relevance; it may indeed represent the difference between survival and replacement by commercial info-tainment. 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 museums¹ digital knowledge.

For further information about the MESL project, please contact MESL Project Director, Getty AHIP Imaging Initiative, 401 Wilshire Blvd., #1100, Santa Monica, CA, 90401-1455, phone: (310) 395-1025, fax: (310) 451-5570

[NOTE; this program is no longer active.]


1. This report is based upon a presentation on MESL made to the EDUCOM annual meeting, Portland, Oregon, November 3, 1995. Thanks are due to Patricia McClung, MESL Project Manager, Don McClelland, Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Ellen Borkowski, University of Maryland, and Greg Welsh, American University, who prepared and participated in that session. I have also drawn on project documents prepared by Beth Sandore, University of Illinois, Chair of the MESL Evaluation Working Group, and Howard Besser, University of Michigan, and David Bearman, Archives and Museums Informatics, of the MESL Management Committee.

2. Participating museums are the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles; The George Eastman House, Rochester, New York; The Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts; The Library of Congress, Washington, DC; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and the National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.

Participating universities are: American University, Washington, D.C., Columbia University, New York, Cornell University, Ithaca, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, The University of Maryland at College Park, The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Dearborn, and Flint, and The University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

The MESL project was launched by the Getty Art History Information Program, in association with MUSE Educational Media.

3. Copies of the Cooperative Agreement are available upon request.

4. Copies of the MESL Data Dictionary are available upon request.

Last updated: November 30, 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.