April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

Museum Commons. Tragedy or Enlightened Self-Interest?

Michael Edson, Smithsonian Institution, and Rich Cherry, Balboa Park Online Collaborative, USA


There has been an exciting surge of interest in the museum sector in expanding access to museum data through the classic idea of creating a commons. A Web-based multi-institutional museum commons could open up public access to collections, deepening contextual knowledge of objects and helping museum professionals recognize the unseen value of their own collections. For example, collections items that seem orphaned or fragmentary in one institution may enjoy a rich life on-line, once reunited with relevant collections and data from other institutions in an on-line commons environment. Commons-oriented intellectual property policies should also enable content sharing for educational and other non-commercial uses, or they may be used to facilitate new innovations or for-profit businesses beyond the scope of traditional rights-and-reproductions activities.

The Smithsonian Institution and the Balboa Park on-line Collaborative (BPOC) are both large, multi-part organizations with diverse research and outreach missions: together they provide a unique opportunity to explore the potential of the commons model.

Keywords: Commons, intellectual property, multi-institution, Collaborative, access, sharing

The Interaction

This Museums and the Web 2010 ‘Interaction’ session explores the characteristics of the digital commons, how the commons model can address many of the challenges of inter- and intra-collections research, use and collaboration, and how the commons model is being explored by the Smithsonian and the Balboa Park Online Collaborative.

Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution (composed of 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo), and Rich Cherry, Director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative (a San Diego-based membership organization consists of 20 institutions, including museums, science centers, performing arts organizations, gardens and the San Diego Zoo), will facilitate a discussion about the feasibility and, if successful, potential replication of multi-institution intellectual property commons models. Recent strategy reviews conducted independently at both organizations have revealed ambitious plans to bring transformational change to how they interact with the public and each other by creating a Web-based Commons.

This interaction will provide an overview of both organizations’ plans for creating these commons environments, how they arrived at these conclusions, and the challenges of implementation. Both speakers will then participate with the audience in a dialogue on the potential and requirements for replication of these as of yet unfinished models among other institutions.

The Problem

Everyone researcher has stories of great collections that are not on-line, on-line collections that are hard to search, images that should be in the public domain but are locked up in expensive and restrictive rights-and-reproductions licenses, and tedious searches of scores of different on-line collection Web sites to assemble the research data we need - if we can find it and if we can get permission to use it. Many of us also struggle with institutional bureaucracies that want to channel research and collaboration opportunities through slow and laborious contracting and legal processes, or staff who guard collection images as if public access was the end of all good things. There must be a better way!

What is a Commons?

Many organizations have started exploring aspects of the Commons. Thirty-two organizations participate in the Flickr Commons (, and museums like the Brooklyn Museum, the Magnes, and the Powerhouse Museum are using Creative Commons licenses to clarify the intellectual property status of their on-line collections in ways that encourage reuse of their holdings. But what exactly is a commons? What are its characteristics? What makes a commons different than just a good on-line collections Web site? Why are these differences important to our organizations and audiences?

The ‘Commons’ refers to resources that are held in the public sphere for the benefit and use of everyone. Commons usually get created when a property owner decides that a given set of resources - land, grass for grazing sheep, books in a library, or software code - will be more valuable if freely shared than if restricted.  While there is no formal definition of a ‘museum commons’, some themes and attributes have emerged through conversations and workshops with museum practitioners, educators and other stakeholders working on commons-like projects. Resources are:

  • Federated: assets from separate databases or repositories are presented together, irrespective of what organization or department they came from
  • Designed for users: toolsets to allow specific user groups to effectively use the combined collections and data
  • Findable: Search and findability are strongly emphasized
  • Shareable: The architecture of the commons emphasizes persistent URL's and linking/embedding tools that enable and encourage sharing
  • Reusable: Intellectual property policies are uniform and clearly stated
  • Free: Assets are free to access and use
  • Can be bulk downloaded: The commons platform provides for bulk download of assets
  • Machine readable: Assets are presented in machine readable formats
  • High resolution: Assets are made available in high resolution and not unnecessarily restricted.
  • Available for collaboration without control: The commons platform, through a combination of the attributes above, enables collaboration and research without the necessity of formal contracts or agreements.
  • Open to Network effects: Commons platforms are designed to take advantage of  network effects from user contributions
  • In the Public Domain: Particularly for collecting institutions, understanding and advancing the public domain is, or should be, a core activity


For the purposes of this interaction, several assertions about the benefits of the commons model can serve as conversation starters.

1. Harmony with mission

Advocates for the Museum Commons have lots of reasons for the ideas put forth above, but any discussion should start with a review of institutional purpose:

I then bequeath the whole of my the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge... (James Smithson 1765-1829)

Educate the public about the social and historical significance of aerospace technology and its promise for the future. (Mission Statement, San Diego Air and Space Museum BPOC Member)

. . . dedicated to helping people of all ages learn about, and enjoy, the history of San Diego, and to appreciate how our past, present, and future are interrelated. (Mission Statement San Diego Historical Society BPOC member)

These mission statements are not unique, and across all of the mission statements runs the theme of providing access to knowledge and content.

2. The Public Domain

The original framers of our intellectual property laws, including Thomas Jefferson, saw the commons as the natural state of intellectual property - and private ownership its cautiously and temporarily granted exception. The public domain is not, as James Boyle writes, “some gummy residue left behind when all the good stuff has been covered by property law. The public domain is the place where we quarry the building blocks of our culture.” (Boyle, 2008, as quoted in Edson, 2009).

3. User experience

User experience on a commons site is generally more satisfying than the experience on a collections or data access site that was not designed with a commons model.

We are like a retail chain that has desirable and unique merchandise but requires its customers to adapt to dramatically different or outdated idioms of signage, product availability, pricing, and check-out in every aisle of each store. This needs to be addressed to realize the full potential of the Smithsonian’s digital initiatives. (Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy, 2009)

For example, compare the "All 6,288 Smithsonian Images" Flickr set from ( to many of the same photographs on the Smithsonian Images site (

4. Economies of scale

One commons platform serving multiple museum collections should be more efficient to build and maintain than multiple platforms. For example, Neither the Smithsonian units nor individual BPOC members can afford to establish, maintain, and refine the platforms they want on their own - never mind that if they could, the repetition of effort or the devastating effect on end-users would be calamitous. Imagine 20 separate e-commerce, event ticketing, or personalization systems and the cost of supporting them.   More importantly, we can jointly develop tools that allow users to effectively take actions across multiple collections.

5. A better collaborative model

Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody writes,

we are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organization …Getting the free and ready participation of a large, distributed group with a variety of skills has gone from impossible to simple. (Shirky, 2008)

6. Innovation and knowledge creation

In the law, and in our understanding of the way the world works, we recognize that no idea stands alone, and that all innovation is built on the ideas and innovations of others. When creators are allowed free and unrestricted access to the work of others, through the public domain, fair use, a commons, or other means, innovation flourishes. (Edson, 2009)

Also see the assertions about open access to scientific data creating new opportunities for knowledge creation in Jesse Dylan's video for the Science Commons (

7. A better business model

A free commons model in which organizations build increased visitation around on-line communities and open access will ultimately be more scalable and profitable (and more harmonious with most museum missions) than business models in which we attempt to directly monetize access and re-use. (Regarding the "profitability" of on-line collections, as a point of reference, one Smithsonian colleague tells me that his group spends over $100,000 annually managing revenue-generating rights-and-reproductions requests, but brings in less than $30,000 annually in income. The authors believe this to be fairly typical. Ken Hamma, in Public Domain Art in an Age of Easier Mechanical Reproducibility, cites a 2004 Mellon study which found that 56 of 100 museums with budgets over $10 million received less than $50,000 annually in digital rights revenue. (Hamma, 2005)

8. More responsive to needs/expectations of digital natives

Digital natives (and those of us who are too old to be natives but nonetheless have a millennial bent) expect on-line resources to be free, easy to find, and permissively licensed.

9. Whose collections are they, anyway?

In many cases, public funds have supported the purchase, storage, conservation, and academic research surrounding museum collections. The public already owns these resources: shouldn't the public be able to use them on-line, without restriction? (This rationale is especially pungent when the physical collections are in the public domain.)

Ken Hamma has much thoughtful – and early – work on this subject:

Resistance to free and unfettered access may well result from a seemingly well-grounded concern: many museums assume that an important part of their core business is the acquisition and management of rights in art works to maximum return on investment. That might be true in the case of the recording industry, but it should not be true for nonprofit institutions holding public domain art works; it is not even their secondary business. (Hamma, 2005)

10. Helping our peer organizations

Research organizations often charge each other expensive rights-and-reproduction fees for scholarly access and reuse. Not only does this discourage scholarship and publishing, but it also perpetuates a continuing cycle of charging these fees. (A notable counter example is the Images for Academic Publishing (IAP) program, ).


Artstor: Images for Academic Publishing (IAP). Available

Bollier, D. (2005) A Renaissance of the Science Commons. Available

Boyle, J. (2008) The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

ccLearn. Available

Creative Commons and open content related videos. Available

Creative Commons: The seminal on-line intellectual property commons. Available

Edson M. (2009) Imagining the Smithsonian Commons. Available: Video:

Hamma, K. (2005) Public Domain Art in an Age of Easier Mechanical Reproducibility. D-Lib Magazine. Available

Kundra, V. (2008) Creating the Digital Public Square. Available

Lessig, L. (2001) The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House.

Malamud, C. 2007 Memo re: Available

MIT Open Courseware. Available

Open Education Resources Commons. Available

Open Government Data Principles. Available

Parkins C. 2010 Creative Commons talks with Brooklyn Museum. Available

Science Commons. Available

“Science Commons” – a short video by Jesse Dylan. Available

Shirky, Clay (2008) Here Comes Everybody. New York: Hyperion, 2008.

Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy (2009). Available:

Tanner, S (2004) Reproduction Charging Models & Rights Policy for Digital Images in American Art Museums: A Mellon Foundation Study. Available



Cite as:

Edson, M., and R. Cherry, Museum Commons. Tragedy or Enlightened Self-Interest?. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted