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How museums can use image licensing to enrich engagement with digital audiences

A vast number of museums are using image licensing to generate additional income, and as MuseumNext reported earlier in 2021, many museums have reconsidered their approaches to licensing as part of their digital pivot.

While some larger museums have built highly successful relationships with high street brands, such as the Natural History Museum’s impressive body of licensing projects with retailers including Marks and Spencers, John Lewis and Made among others, image licensing offers possibilities to organisations of all sizes – and with any collection.

And image licensing can be approached in a myriad of ways to suit your organisational objectives – they can be a potent force for outreach and engagement, education and research – as well as a way of raising much-needed funds.

Creative Commons

Back in 2012, the Rijksmuseum made more than 700,000 images freely available, and exploring the collection is a great way to while away your lunch break. Head over to the Rijksstudio where you can explore their image collection, download images or (cannily) order poster prints.

Since then, many other institutions have followed suit – and releasing these images to the public for their free enjoyment, study, and use seems well suited to many museums’ missions.

More recently, Paris Musées released more than 100,000 works into the public domain under the Creative Commons CC0 license – which is a license with no rights reserved. While the Paris Musées have waived their rights to these images, the images are accompanied by a wealth of background information, and this generosity encourages appropriate use – in line with the organisations’ vision.

“This policy of free access is part of a programme of development, cultural mediation and opening up of the collections to Internet users,” says the museum. “Each user will receive a file that contains an image in HD (300 dpi – 3000 pixels), a document with information about the work and a copy of the Good Practice Charter for images available under CCØ licence which will ask a user to cite the source and offer information about the work.”

And not only this, but the Paris Musées have also opened up their API, to allow full interrogation and study of their database.

While this approach embraces the opportunities for learning that releasing these images provides, as The British Library points out: “the potential for product development and licensing is limited only by the imagination.”

Image licensing paves the way for a whole array of product collaborations, and by retaining some rights over the images, organisations can retain some control and maximise the opportunities that these partnerships present.

Could licensing be a way to connect with new audiences?

Collaborations also provide an opportunity to connect with entirely new audiences. The Skateroom, for example, work with museums and artists to develop skate decks – and raise funds for social projects around the world.

Image licensing

“We believe art should be accessible to all,” they say. “We believe art can change the world. We achieve this through artivism by joining forces with the world’s most recognised artists and engaging them in our vision of engaged consumption.

“When we place these iconic artworks on skateboards, we are not just taking art off the museum walls and giving it back to the community. Why art on skateboard decks? A skateboard is an ideal canvas because it is affordable, mobile, and useable.

“A skateboard is a symbol of freedom. It has the power to break social barriers. A skateboard embodies the core idea that drives The Skateroom forward – Art for Social Impact.”

One added benefit of collaborating with manufacturers is the opportunity to bolster your own shop product lines – and in the case of the Guggenheims’ collaboration with The Skateroom, this can be achieved neatly by selling through your museum’s e-commerce and then dropshipping.

This potential for extraordinary product development and the chance to rethink your communication channels can be seen in the work from ARTiSTORY. They work with an impressive range of international museums to create original illustrations and assets, and to then manage image licensing for product development. This innovative approach has storytelling and experiential shopping at its heart.

Co-founder and MD, Yizan He recently told CEO Today: “Licensing programmes have resonated with hundreds of millions of young people globally and in most cases, these audiences have been or are way beyond the traditional reach of the cultural organisations we work with.

“Most interestingly, young audiences love the licensed products and enjoy this new form of interaction with art and culture. Our clients are experimenting with remote pop-ups, live-streaming, creating stickers and filters for social media. We are designing digital, shareable tools and engagement strategies that are opening up the cultural world to entirely new audiences. The results have been both encouraging and inspirational.”

This opportunity to reach new audiences is hard to ignore. By making our images available across a wide variety of platforms – think Animal Crossing or Snapchat filters – it’s possible to engage and inspire in a whole new way.

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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