Plentiful Pretties: The Met Goes (Partially) Open Access

Sound the alarm! Correction: sound the Open Access alarm! The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA), a bastion of art and collecting since its foundation in 1870, has made all photographs of its public-domain works completely open access (i.e. licensed under CC0 1.0). This means that we "now have more than 375,000 images of artworks from [the Met's] collection to use, share, and remix—without restriction." The culturally-and-aesthetically-important-photograph-free-sharing-dance-party commences in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...

The Met's Collections database is easy to navigate, too. What I really like is the ability to search only for images in the public domain - a limiting criterion which still throws up over 200,000 juicy results as of today. You can also get granular, and filter according to various things, including geographical location, era in which the item was produced, and type of object.

 Screenshot of  The Met's Collection database , 15 February 2017. 

Screenshot of The Met's Collection database, 15 February 2017. 

Have I said I love it yet? Well, I love it. And not just because it provides endless hours of procrastinating-educational entertainment as I search random terms. (Completely unrelatedly, I can now reliably inform you, dear reader(s), that there are 121 results for "unicorn", 90 results for "shiny", and 77 results for "pretty".) By making a significant amount of their collection fully (and gloriously) Open Access, the Met allows for researchers working on them to use them with somewhat wild abandon - be that in blogposts, conference presentations, publications, or teaching. This means, at least in theory, that artefacts held by the Met will be studied more and more intensively, and ultimately reach a broader audience. That audience is not limited to academics or those working directly on the Met's stuff.

Going Open Access in this manner, with such a high volume of material, sends a clear signal - these items, and the photographs taken of them, are not "owned" exclusively by the museum. Sure, the Met houses these objects and took on the job of photographing, catologing, preserving them. But, the Met's purpose is not (or should not be) to "possess" the collections - greedily hoarde history's most important bits and bobs, shielding them when necessary from the public's overly vulgar view. Rather, the museum must open itself up fully to the public gaze, whenever possible.

The collections are "collectible" precisely because they are of wide socio-cultural significance, and thus they "belong" to everyone. This is emphatically the case when the photographed objects themselves are already in the public domain. (Frankly, I'm pro Open Access for everything, all the time - but that's a topic for another time.) Although I'm not an expert in museum studies or the politics of collecting, I am aware that museums are certainly not apolitical spaces.* Museums are powerful ideological machines, telling us, for example, what is worthy of display and study, what is "OK" to appropriate and from which cultures. So, my high-pitched excitement for the Met's decision is tempered by this context, which makes me somewhat wary to applaud an institution for doing something they should really have already been doing. But it is, nevertheless, nice to see an institution really thinking through the way they live up to their overarching mission effectively in the current digital age. In 2015, the Met's Trustees updated their mission statement to include the following proclamation:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collects, studies, conserves, and presents significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas.

By going Open Access, the Met are certainly making strides to facilitate ever more fertile "connections" between their collections and the public. 

What have I felt the most connected to during my preliminary dive into the database? Jewellery. Big, shiny, old jewellery. This probably comes as no surprise to those of you who've met me and my ever-expanding collection of ginormous costume necklaces. And so, as a palate cleanser after that rapid foray into museum ethics -- and just because I CAN, now that the photographs of the following pretties are available to me -- I present to you, in no particular order, my top five pieces of Open Access jewellery the Met has to offer: 

 Necklace. Details as at  1.  License:  CC0 1.0 

Necklace. Details as at 1. License: CC0 1.0 

1. Necklace

  • Date: 1840s
  • Culture: European
  • Medium: gold, emeralds, diamonds
  • Credit Line: Gift of Polaire Weissman, 1986
  • Accession Number: 1986.331.3a, b

 

 

 

 

 Pendant with a Triton Riding a Unicorn-like Sea Creature. Details as at  2  .  License:  CC0 1.0

Pendant with a Triton Riding a Unicorn-like Sea Creature. Details as at 2. License: CC0 1.0

2. Pendant with a Triton Riding a Unicorn-like Sea Creature

  • Designer: Reinhold Vasters (German, Erkelenz 1827–1909 Aachen)
  • Date: ca. 1870–95
  • Culture: probably German or French
  • Medium: Baroque pearl mounted with enameled gold set with pearls, emeralds and rubies and with pendent pearls
  • Dimensions: Height: 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold and Platinum
  • Credit Line: The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
  • Accession Number: 1982.60.382

 

 

 .Jeweled Bracelet (one of pair) Details as at  3  .  License:  CC0 1.0

.Jeweled Bracelet (one of pair) Details as at 3. License: CC0 1.0

3. Jeweled Bracelet (one of pair)

  • Date: 500–700
  • Geography: Made in probably Constantinople
  • Culture: Byzantine
  • Medium: Gold, silver, pearls, amethyst, sapphire, glass, quartz
  • Dimensions: Overall: 1 1/2 x 3 1/4 in. (3.8 x 8.2 cm) strap: 7/8 x 7 11/16 in. (2.3 x 19.5 cm) bezel: 1 5/16 in. (3.4 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold
  • Credit Line: Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
  • Accession Number: 17.190.1671

 

 Pendant in the form of a hand. Details as at  4  .  License:  CC0 1.0

Pendant in the form of a hand. Details as at 4. License: CC0 1.0

4. Pendant in the form of a hand

  • Date: first half 17th century
  • Culture: possibly Spanish
  • Medium: Rock crystal, with enameled gold mount set with emeralds
  • Dimensions: Height: 2 5/8 in. (6.7 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold and Platinum
  • Credit Line: The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
  • Accession Number: 1982.60.394
     

 

 

 Cluster Brooch with Letters Spelling "Amor". Details as at 5 .  License:  CC0 1.0

Cluster Brooch with Letters Spelling "Amor". Details as at 5. License: CC0 1.0

5. Cluster Brooch with Letters Spelling "Amor"

  • Date: mid-15th century
  • Culture: French
  • Medium: Gold, pearl, emerald, silver pin
  • Dimensions: Overall: 1 1/8 x 15/16 x 9/16 in. (2.9 x 2.4 x 1.4 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold
  • Credit Line: The Cloisters Collection, 1957
  • Accession Number: 57.26.1

 

 

 

* If you're interested in the politics of museums, collecting, and exhibiting, see for starters:

Karp, Ivan, and Stephen Lavine (eds.), Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Washington, USA: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991) (Google books; the essay 'Culture and Representation' by Karp available as a pdf here)

Macdonald, Sharon (ed.), The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1998) (Google books; chapter 1 by Macdonald, 'Exhibitions of Power and Powers of Exhibition: An Introduction to the Politics of Display' available as a pdf here )