Google to Create Digital Archive of Iraq’s National Museum

A detail from one of the exhibitsGoogle has announced it will create a digital record of the Baghdad museum’s collection, and will make the images available online by early next year.  As Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive announced last week, “The history of the beginning of – literally – civilization… is preserved in this museum.”  Over 14,000 images have been taken, allowing the Iraqi public, and the rest of the world to see the images. 

Rod Norland notes in an article for the New York Times that the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had already digitized part of the collection, and created a website, the virtual Museum of Iraq.  So there is some duplication here.  A few things to take away from the announcement.

First, it seems like a good idea to digitize these objects, and make the images available to to public generally.  However many other museums are unlikely to take this step, at least in the short term.  We don’t know how expensive an undertaking this was, as the costs are born by the US State Department and Google.  But museums also will fear the loss of revenue from their own publications.  As many museums prohibit photography, often the only way to take home a photographic souvenir of the visit is to purchase the shiny museum publications.  Of course part of the impetus for this digitization project is to make these work accessible—at least in a digital way—to members of the public who are unable to visit the Baghdad museum.

Secondly, I wonder what procedures google followed with the project.  Are these high-resolution images which will be useful for scholars?  Will these images contain information on the history of the objects? When they were excavated? Where they were unearthed?  And finally, will these images be made available to the various stolen art databases.  If another tragedy were to befall this important museum, will these images be useful to help prevent the sale of artifacts? 

  1. Rod Nordland, Google Chief Announces Plan in Baghdad to Put Iraqi Artifacts Online, The New York Times, November 25, 2009.
  2. Google to digitise Iraq artefacts, BBC, November 24, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

1 thought on “Google to Create Digital Archive of Iraq’s National Museum”

  1. I love reading this blog! I too am very interested in cultural property issues and you keep me up to date.

    I wanted to challenge a couple of assumptions I think that you make in the third paragraph. I’ve been working in art museums for a couple of years and get the general impression that most museums would LOVE to digitize and provide online access to their collections. I question whether museums actually make money on their publications. Maybe some rare blockbuster catalogues do, but when you account for staff time, I wouldn’t be surprised if they barely break even. I’ve actually been told by our rights and reproduction person that when all the time and equipment is accounted for, our museum takes a loss selling the rights to publish photos of objects in our collection. Also, I think there is a common misconception that museums prohibit photography because they want to make proceeds off the sale of postcards. The rationale that I’ve always been told is 1) ppl taking photographs are distracting to other visitors, 2) it’s difficult to control the use of flash and works of art made of paper, feathers, or fibers are extremely light sensitive, and 3) museums do not always hold the image rights to objects in their collections (especially the case with loans).

    I suppose that one risk in digitizing collections is the loss of control. What is to stop someone from grabbing an image online to use for any number of purposes? Few museums have the resources to track down and prosecute anything that lies outside fair use. But, that is a risk that I think many museums are willing to take for the sake of the public good. Museums have to remain relevant and keep up with the times and the new digital tools. Many museums already have put their collections online, so they must have seen beyond these concerns.

    My museum would really like to digitize its collection, but we’ve run into some obstacles that I’m sure other museums have faced: money, money, staff expertise, time, and money. When we put our collection online, we want to do it right. Meaning, that we want quality photographs, vetted research, and transparent provenance. Nor do we see the information published on online collections flowing one-way; such resources are also valuable in bringing works to the attention of those who might be able to help us learn more about the pieces (including raising any provenance concerns).

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