Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this afternoon’s debate. As grant in aid for museums has reduced, museums have been encouraged to generate ever more revenues themselves. They have been extremely successful, raising more from commercial activities and donors than ever before, but there is a tension between a museum’s need to generate revenue and the performance of its public mission. There is one aspect of commercialisation that many say has gone too far, namely the fees charged to reproduce images of publicly owned artworks. Briefly, this is the practice whereby museums charge publishers, scholars and occasionally tea-towel makers—hold that thought for now—for a licence to reproduce images of artworks in their collection. Fees can range from £20 for an academic lecture to well over £200 per image for a book. These include images of artworks that are themselves out of copyright—the category that I most want to address.
The question is simple: in a digital age, should images in our public collections be restricted so that museums can earn money from them, or should they be shared as widely as possible as a means of expanding knowledge, stimulating our creative industries and engaging new and more diverse audiences?
A key issue is how image fees affect education. They have even been blamed for the reluctance of exam boards to offer an art history A-level. The textbooks are expensive to publish, thanks to image fees. A group of leading British art historians has said that image fees,
“pose a serious threat to art history”,
and has called for them to be abolished. Academic art history books can incur fees of many thousands of pounds, the net effect of which is to severely inhibit the publication of new scholarship. You might even say that image fees act as a tax on scholarship. Many museums say that they supply images for free for academic or non-commercial use, but they differ in how they define “non-commercial” and they tend not to be generous or realistic. The British Museum defines,
“anything that is in itself charged for, including textbooks and academic books”,
as a commercial publication.
It is true that some in the museum sector have been exploring a new approach to this issue. When the National Museum Directors’ Council issued a report on image fees in 2015, it was aptly named Striking the Balance; the balance being between supporting education and raising money. But here we must ask whether image fees do actually raise money for museums. The Striking the Balance report said that it was,
“difficult to identify detailed information about the commercial return”,
from licensing because of,
“a common reluctance to report relatively low direct revenues, often attributable to a fear that management will perceive the activity as not worth it (and hence that it may place jobs at risk)”.
Surprisingly, some institutions cannot say whether image licensing is actually profitable. For example, the Tate knows how much revenue image fees generate overall, but it does not know all the costs associated with raising that revenue and so cannot say whether it turns a profit. Selling images is expensive for museums. In 2017-18, the V&A’s Word and Image Department spent more than £200,000 on salaries and overheads. It is expensive for smaller collections too. The Government Art Collection spends some £7,000 annually selling image licences, but has made a profit of just £180 in the last five years. For some institutions, licensing is profitable. In 2016-17, licensing at the National Portrait Gallery contributed £114,000 to its overall budget of just over £20 million, although as a source of income it is declining.
The question must be whether museums are losing out from not sharing images of their collections as widely as possible either online, in print or even on screen by embracing what is known in the museum world as “open access”. In order to help sell images, British museums restrict the quality of the images available for the public to see on their websites. Those who are unable to visit museums in person, whether through lack of means or physical ability, have a less enriching experience. Furthermore, evidence is beginning to show that the more people see of a collection, the more they want to engage with it, and eventually spend their money in the museum that houses it. The Striking the Balance report concluded:
“There is a growing body of evidence that open access to digital content ... drives value back to the existing business model or revenue streams of the institution”.
International museums from the Rijksmuseum to the National Gallery of Finland are increasingly reaching the same conclusion. They see open access as a way to help education and bring in new and more diverse audiences. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York found that one painting was viewed almost 3,000 times a month on its own website, but the same image on Wikipedia was viewed four times as often, and in 29 different languages.
Such is the international embrace of open access that there is a danger that Britain will be left behind. A website called Europeana makes available 11.5 million open-access images of artworks, but just four have been contributed by the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery. More collections have gone “open” in Uruguay than in the UK. If we do not act soon, people will simply engage with images of art from non-UK collections that are more accessible. The global information revolution places our great national museums at risk of global irrelevance—the longer they restrict the use of images, the greater the damage will be not only to themselves but even to our economy and to the prestige and visibility around the world of our culture and history. British museums have some of the finest collections in the world, but we need to let the world see our collections.
How long can our museums deny the logic of arguments for greater openness, simply on the grounds that, by closely policing the use of their images, they can eke out an ever shrinking revenue, which in many cases does not even cover costs? At some point, museums will have to stop trying to control how the public engage with their collections. Ultimately, for museums to justify their ongoing call on substantial public funds, they must recognise the new realities. Will the Minister therefore hold a round-table meeting with stakeholders to consider a new way forward?
My Lords, the noble Lord has certainly mounted a welcome challenge to the museum and gallery establishment. In commenting, I should just say that I am involved with the British Library through the Eccles Centre for American Studies. I was, as a matter of history, the chairman of the trustees at Kew, where we held over 200,000 botanical drawings. I have also been much involved over many years in the Bowes Museum in County Durham; it is, of course, not a national museum, so it does not come within the scope of this debate.
The key sentence in the noble Lord’s presentation related to the size of the fees charged to reproduce publicly owned artworks. It is a pretty narrow ground on its own but, narrow though it is, it is quite complex. The noble Lord referred to the fact that, on the internet, the resolution is perhaps not very high—high resolution can be quite a challenging matter. We will have all picked up postcards in museums and galleries and been disappointed with the colour and printing of those postcards. Indeed, getting the colour completely right can be pretty difficult. Something that somebody wants to reproduce may be in store or in a frail state; its provenance may be quite uncertain or its attribution not for sure. There may be other images of that work available and so the work that has to be put in to make sure that the job is done professionally can be quite extensive.
Attached to this assertion that fees are too high are criticisms of commercialisation and even of policies restricting access. These need to be seen in a wider context. Let me take the V&A. We have been talking about funding. The V&A gets a grant in aid from the DCMS. In 2010, it got £44 million; in the last full year reported, it got £39 million of grant. The £5 million difference, if adjusted for inflation, amounts to a cut of 28%. That is quite severe by any standards. The £39 million is in fact just over half the total unrestricted expenditure of the V&A, so it needs to raise £34 million to reach its total of £73 million—quite a formidable challenge.
Then there is the question of intervention in this narrow field. Museums are granted day-to-day independence—a Herbert Morrisonian concept reflecting the difference in publicly owned bodies between strategy and day-to-day, which still persists. In my view, that independence, allowing trustees and management to run these institutions as they think fit, is extremely important; indeed, given the variability of the institutions, it is essential. Any form of government intervention will therefore have to be thought about carefully.
The demands on museums, as the noble Lord said, are increasing. Gone are the days of Dr Ashmole when one could say, “You are lucky to see what I have gathered together; you’d never see it if I had not done so. Do come and look, and I’ll tell you what it means”. The world of education, the internet, social media and so on brings a much broader, wider need to be involved in museums. Museums are recognising this with workshops and seminars. Much more engagement is taking place. I am sure that, with the way the world is going, there will need to be a greater response to that engagement and the search for knowledge, as has been mentioned.
In today’s circumstances, museums and galleries have quite a lot to contend with. The people who run them are not natural capitalists. I do not think “profit” is a word they would recognise or ever use. Certainly, I have not heard any senior person in the museums trade talking about making profits. Indeed, each year is a scramble to cover expenditure from income. Look at the V&A; the surplus at the end of its £73 million was tiny—under half a million, or thereabouts. The management of these museums are thinking about recovery of costs and maintaining a high level of service. Of course, this costs money: skilled people doing skilled work incurs costs. It is not just image reproduction one should be thinking about, but the whole raft of advice and dialogue on a much wider front, involving curators, archivists, conservators and management itself.
It seems to me entirely reasonable for museums to seek to recover costs, although not necessarily all costs. Again, I do not think that museum managers tend to think about that balance. It is often said that people do not value the things for which they are not asked to pay. Perhaps that is a bit of a cliché, but there could be reason in it. The question then becomes: what are reasonable costs and are we prepared to pay them? We might want to negotiate; many negotiations do take place. Indeed, as has been mentioned, some institutions are more generous than others. I remember at the Bowes, which is not a national museum, we had a request by Sir Alistair Horne about a photograph of a Napoleonic brass clock. We said: “Go on, take your own pictures and we will not charge you a fee”. Not everybody is charging fees to everybody else all the time. It must depend on the funding position, the flow of demands upon the institution and how institutions respond individually.
I do not see that there is much wrong with the present position. The plea for this rather vague concept of open access is about not much more than saying, “Will you please make these areas free of charge altogether?” That is probably what it comes down to, which does not seem an appropriate response to what is happening to museums and galleries.
These things should be left to find their own level. Each institution should have its own policy and pursue its relationship with the public in the light of its own circumstances, tackling things case by case. If somebody is displeased and wants to appeal against some charge that is being imposed they can always go to the trustees of these institutions, who would no doubt be very willing to hear the case and see what they think. I hope, therefore, that not much more is heard of what seems to me to be a small storm in an academic teacup.
My Lords, this is an important and timely subject for short debate. My interest in it, as chairman of the Royal Armouries Museum—one of our national museums—is in the register. While the title of this debate speaks of balancing public access and commercial reuse of digital content, I have an uncomfortable feeling—confirmed in the opening speech by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg—that it is really about tilting the balance towards the private and commercial sector and away from the ongoing benefit to the public sector.
I will explain my concerns from my experience. The Royal Armouries collection comprises a quantity of objects and images where the original work is indeed out of copyright, and others where copyright does not apply. However, the original work is not the same as a photograph of the original. Images out of copyright are not free for all to create but are facsimiles of objects that are expensive to care for and store in perpetuity. Significant financial investment is required in photography, digitisation processes and technology, and in highly qualified and skilled staff to produce, caption, catalogue, store digitally and share these images where appropriate.
Above and beyond the core level of service as a public museum, the Royal Armouries, along with many other national museums, strives to invest in the digitisation of collections to a professional standard. To support this important activity, the museum must make substantial regular investment in professional collections management software, within which images may be safely stored, catalogued and made accessible. The museum can then share good and usable-quality digital images of our collections with the general public for non-commercial use, free of charge. Doing so makes our museum more accessible while heeding the wider conservation needs. The Royal Armouries openly supports and encourages free photography of the collections for non-commercial personal use by visitors. This helps to disseminate and broaden the reach of the collection, for instance via sharing on social media, and thereby to excite people about arms and armour, which is our core objective.
It is well known—and has been alluded to—that some European and other overseas museums now offer certain collection images free of charge. However, in my view these institutions do not form a realistic comparator, since their generous funding models differ fundamentally from those used in UK museums, which survive within a much leaner funding model.
There is also the expectation that public funding will be significantly complemented by self-generated income created through intense commercial activity by the museums. Since 2008, grant in aid has reduced considerably, and I am not alone in believing that the ratio of self-generated commercial income to grant in aid will need to continue to increase to bridge the shortfall between museum running costs and grant in aid. Image sales and other licensing income will be an essential component of future income streams, helping to relieve the burden on the public purse.
Quite properly, the museum charges for commercial use of its images, in the manner of any commercial picture library where heavy investment has been made in developing the image stock and where the client buying the image will profit in some way from the use of the image—by charging for a book, a television programme, a tea-towel if you like, an advertising campaign, or another product, in which the image will appear and make their service more commercially appealing or profitable. I do not think it is right that a publicly funded body should make material available for commercial advantage and, in so doing, increase its reliance on the public purse. Importantly, controlling such commercial licensing also allows the Royal Armouries, in my case, to ensure appropriate regulation and the sensitive use of our images. It is vital to retain the right to protect the museum and its collections by placing images wisely within commercial associations or, in certain cases, by declining to do so. We do this in the best long-term interests of the museum’s brand, profile and reputation. From time to time circumstances arise where wholly inappropriate commercial associations have been suggested and which, had they been entered into, would surely have brought the Royal Armouries into disrepute and created a damaging public outcry.
Commercial intellectual property licensing can be and is directly measured as a contribution to the UK economy and I accept the value of IP generation in the UK and as an export internationally. However, I argue that the policy approach of the Royal Armouries provides a fair way to ensure wide public benefit from easy access to our collection while also ensuring that businesses can benefit from the appropriate commercial use of our images and at the same time help to support and offset the costs of producing and professionally archiving the images for public and other uses.
I hope that noble Lords will appreciate from this moderately lengthy explanation that the status quo is perfectly satisfactory from the point of view of the Royal Armouries museum and that the modest five-figure income stream that we derive is important to us, and one that we plan to expand, as we are in many other ways, to offer a better and more attractive service to the general public.
My Lords, the research I have done and listening to this debate suggest one key word, and I believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, got there first: reasonableness. What is it reasonable to suggest you are going to get out of a nationally owned archive when people want to access it for certain functions? Where does the trade-off come in? I believe that the initial worry was about academic research in terms of where it starts and where it stops. If you write a textbook, you expect to sell thousands of copies of it, so it is clear that it is not a totally academic exercise. A reference book that is distributed to 100 libraries and has another 100 copies given away in a random manner by a desperate publisher may not be regarded as such. Given that, I would suggest that someone, somewhere, has to provide a definition of what is academic and what is commercial. It is reasonable to expect that academic work is supported because ultimately the commercial sector is helped by knowledge being passed on and disseminated. People do not turn up to look at things that they do not know are there. A balance has to be brought to this situation.
People probably do not go to the Royal Armouries museum to look at obscure coats of armour—I know just a little about military history—unless they know that some interesting changes are taking place. Again, some form of balance is needed. Famous paintings get people turning up to look at them. I remember my daughter being very disappointed at just how small the “Mona Lisa” is when she went to see the painting in Paris. Even so, she wanted to queue up and look at it.
When it comes to academic activity, in my opinion, a better definition that could be applied across the sector would be a good starting point. What is going to happen and how can you relate back to it? We need also to see a degree of openness on the part of the institutions. If it costs x amount of money when you tell someone to do something to a certain standard, you may possibly have a more justifiable case for saying that there is a cost which must be recouped in order to maintain the service. I cannot see any real objection to that. Certainly, if someone is desperately in need of a few images, choosing them by going through a procedure that is understood would help. I do not think that there is a matter of great principle here beyond the practicality of making sure that access is in place where that is justifiable at a cost that is reasonable.
It has already been mentioned that one of the ongoing repercussions from the crash 10 years ago is that certain institutions—including galleries and museums—are under more financial pressure than we envisaged when the current funding structure was put in place. There are no two ways about it; it resonates. If this is a reasonable process of recapturing expenditure for something else out there, then okay, but can we have a definition of where that starts and stops? That is something that I think we could look to the Government for; it does not have to be official, it could be a guideline. If a national institution does not want to follow that guideline, let it justify it. If the institution needs to make that money then justifying it for certain reasons should not be too difficult, because it will have had to look at it. It is also the case that, if you are going to make money out of this and are expecting a real return on it, you probably are a commercial activity, even if you are selling A-level or first-year university level textbooks—a nice high turnover there. I know somebody in that market who was producing those textbooks and said, “If you get it right, it’s quite a good little earner”. So why cannot we have some way of adapting this?
I do not really have much else to add except: can we please get some guidance on how to approach this? It is a little row that could rumble on unless somebody stands up and says, “This is what we expect to get out of it. These are our national institutions; they have received support and help, but the public have the right to see these things and to that information. If they are going to make money out of that process, this is the point where we think that starts, and then they can charge”. If we establish that publicly, I think that most of this problem will go away. It is not an unreasonable thing to ask for.
My Lords, I am more than grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for bringing this to our attention and giving us the opportunity to look at this matter—yet again, I have to say. I hope that he will go on bringing it to us until we have a way forward. The debate as I have heard it has not shown me the possibility of that just now.
I have a little experience, although some of it is not direct. The publishers of a book that I wrote some 20 years ago asked me for photographs to illustrate it, but then got cold feet when I produced the photographs, because they would require all kinds of consents and so on. It was a commercial exercise, so this is not a direct illustration, but there were feelings of frustration when, because of money matters, the publisher decided it was too expensive. I am quite sure that, with the illustrations, my book would have been a bestseller. In the end, it was remaindered pretty quickly after I published it. I am really saying that the educational purpose, the widening of information about important subjects, is what is at stake in this debate. It seems to me that that is worth holding in our heads.
With due respect to the noble Viscount, I do not think that cost alone was the ground on which the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, built his argument. I thought that he was talking about all kinds of considerations relating to education, to art education, to scholarly endeavour and to peer review in a global world. I felt rather drawn to that argument and did not for a moment think it was too narrowly focused. He suggested that all we are asking for is what other museums across the world are already doing. Let me confess another thing at this point: I did a lecture on Luther a few months ago, to celebrate his 500th anniversary. My reading in readiness for this debate has made me aware of how I may now be clapped in irons for having got—via the Rijksmuseum—two illustrations from the 14th and 15th centuries, which made the lecture absolutely focused, and illustrated of course, and allowed me to make points that I would have had all kinds of trouble with if I had gone into the theology of Luther merely verbally.
I am therefore more than sympathetic to this business of open access. The noble Viscount said that open access was, to his mind, a rather vague concept—I do not know which of the two words he might have difficulty understanding. I think that open access to the digitised illustrative material in a museum is the same as the open access that takes me through the doors of a museum in the first place.
As for the whole business of recovering costs and the dismal scenario that the noble Viscount presented of all the things that have to happen for something to be held on the record and in the ownership of a museum, we need some factual evidence, do we not? We need to know just what the costs are. Having digitised more than 1 million items for the British Museum—as it says in the briefing papers—what does making them difficult to get hold of add to the case for having them in the first place? Having digitised them, the next step is making use of what one has and making sure that it is spread. Surely, by properly acknowledging the provenance of an illustration in a commercial or non-commercial outlet, one is giving publicity to the institution that holds those pictures in the first place.
I am told that a very popular television programme that seeks to cultivate interest in art has to cut back on the amount of art it shows because of the expense of including it in the programme. I wonder who is winning. A programme about art should show as much art as possible. Then we can say, “Look, it is in the British Museum”, the Victoria and Albert or whatever. I have been a scholar in my time and I know that the world of scholarship asks us to look everywhere for material to illustrate our case and support our points. Yet all the time, a lot of money is charged to do that.
The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, cited the figure of £114,000, which was the only factual piece of evidence about the item that I heard which, in a budget of more than £20 million, seems such a small proportion to have claimed as a profit—although the noble Viscount does not like the word profit; surplus is a nicer word, perhaps, or a flowering of financial gain. That seems such a small amount that it is hardly worth going to the effort of safeguarding, ring-fencing and putting all sorts of barriers around this material.
Of course, I do not hold the exalted positions of the noble Viscount. I have been responsible for a museum, the Museum of Methodism—there is a pinprick in a great tapestry for you. All that we suggested to anybody who wanted to use our stuff was, “Come in and use it, but tell the world that this is where you got it from. We will make a project out of digitising. We will cover the costs and there are funders who will do that”. We have all our stuff digitised, but once we have it, we want to disseminate it. That seems to me the logical next step. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned balance. This material must be used for education.
I am aware that there are unsettled legal questions. On the train, I got lost reading some rather complicated legal material, and perhaps I shall have a cup of coffee with the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, if he can explain it to me. A long briefing document appeared just last month about this whole question within which exceptions to the copyright and risk of items in museums is specifically mentioned. This paragraph struck my eye:
“An outline of the key exceptions to copyright of most benefit to museums is provided below. However, because many of these exceptions are untested in law, as well as including a ‘fair dealing’ caveat, museums may need a healthy appetite for risk to fully benefit from them”.
It is about time that someone tested the question of copyright of digitised material in court so that, instead of having debates such as this, we could have a pointer from the law as to how best to proceed.
As far as I am concerned, having seen art as an exalted aspect of our educational system from a background of knowing nothing about art, it has opened my mind and touched my spirit enormously, and I want that to happen for everybody. Our rich and unparalleled resources need to be publicised, disseminated and made available to all. I echo the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. We ask the Government—I know that the Minister is a sensible man—whether it is possible for us to have a round table of stakeholders, so that these questions can be thrashed out in a proper way.
My Lords, I am pleased to respond to this debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for raising discussion on this interesting subject. I know that he holds strong views on it, as was apparent in his speech.
I declare an interest as I was previously Minister for Intellectual Property; I am also a patron of the Bucks County Museum and the Scott Polar Research Institute. I have a keen interest in the Museum of Brands and the Sir John Soane’s Museum, our smallest national museum. I put on record my sincere thanks to all the museums and galleries up and down the country for the work that they have been doing in digitising their vast collections, and the unique and interesting ways in which they are using digital tools and content to engage with wider audiences.
There are over 2,600 museums in England. These include national, local authority, independent, university, military, National Trust and English Heritage museums. It is quite a complex range but, for the purposes of today’s debate, we are focusing on the 13 national museums in England—those established by legislation and directly funded by government—the British Library and the two non-national museums. All these are sponsored by DCMS and collectively have over 200 million objects. That is quite a number and it is growing.
Public access is critical to everything that the 15 DCMS- sponsored museums and the British Library do. The strategic review of DCMS-sponsored museums, published last year, highlighted that those museums have made, and are making, great efforts to extend and deepen their reach to different audiences. As well as continuing to educate, inspire and entertain audiences young and old, sponsored museums play a key role in attracting international and domestic visitors to sites across the UK.
In 2017-18, DCMS-sponsored museums welcomed around 47 million visitors, including more than 22 million from overseas, demonstrating their value to tourism and the economy. In fact, seven of the most visited attractions in the UK were DCMS-sponsored museums and three were among the top 10 most visited museums in the world. Loans were made to over 4,000 venues, two-thirds of them overseas. This shows what an extensive reach they have, in the UK and internationally, and how well loved they are. They contribute significantly to their local economies and communities, and of course to tourism. They are also significant in helping the UK to be top of the global soft-power index.
Let me attempt to address some of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, and his focus on balance. I start by trying to address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths: what do we mean by public access? There is a short description here but I am sure we could have a whole debate on what a definition might be. The Government have been clear that it relates simply to free public access to the permanent collection—a fairly short definition.
As arm’s-length bodies, national museums determine their own operational matters, including the decision to charge fees for the reuse of images of items in their collections. They need to cover their costs and generate revenues for the large amounts of free activities that they provide. My noble friend Lord Eccles spoke about the economies in museums and gave the V&A as an example. Independence and impartiality are critical to our national museums, and indeed to the whole arts and cultural sector. It would be highly unusual, even inappropriate, for the Government to intervene in an operational matter such as this. As my noble friend Lord Eccles said, museums differ greatly in their needs in both incomes and costs.
In 2016-17, the DCMS-sponsored museums had a combined total income of £981.6 million including just under half—£435 million—from central government. To deliver their full activities, develop new audiences and ways of engaging with people, including digitally, the national museums have always taken a blended approach to generating income, including philanthropic and commercial approaches. This is not a response to government cuts, as has been mentioned, but a key element of how they have always operated. It is crucial to ensuring that access to museums by the public and researchers is free. Commercial income includes catering services and retail activities, events such as weddings and corporate hire, sponsorship, charging for certain exhibitions and other fund-raising activities which noble Lords will be aware of. This can include charging fees for certain reuses of images that they have produced.
The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, referred to international museums such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, while the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, made comparisons with museums abroad. The Rijksmuseum charges for entrance and therefore has a different funding model. It is not something that we are considering here. The Louvre in Paris is owned by the French Government and 50% of its annual income is provided by the state, but it is not free to enter except, apparently, for one Sunday a month. The entry fee charged is €15.
I shall answer the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, who spoke eloquently as the chair of a national museum. As I have said, the funding of our national museums is very different from international comparisons and is a small but important income source. It was therefore interesting to hear his views from his standpoint.
I understand that all DCMS-sponsored museums offer an image reproduction service. These differ depending on use and on the different collections and business models. Image size and purpose are key considerations. Many images, usually of low resolution, are available online for free for non-commercial use, with further options for academic use and where high-resolution images are requested. National museums offer a range of licence prices which are dependent upon the purpose and quality of the image. Several offer a lower price where a reproduction is for academic purposes. For example, the National Gallery offers a scholarly fee waiver while the National Portrait Gallery has an academic licence option. All national museums have images available for free on Art UK and many, including the V&A and the British Museum on the Europeana Collections, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. Knowing how important this is for any museum, the Government Art Collection which the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, referred to, is currently considering this issue for a review of its own model. It is due to report shortly, which I hope will reassure the noble Lord.
There are significant costs in producing high-resolution images, particularly if an item is not already digitised or in 3D. National museums invest significant amounts in providing high-quality images. Given that this is a rolling programme, it is understandable that museums often cannot quantify the costs of providing a specific image digitally. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, raised the issue of digital access and costs. While the noble Lord and others have found this difficult to understand, through my discussions I can appreciate why it is difficult to be precise on a case-by-case basis. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, the museums have control over their costs and incomes.
High-specification equipment, studio space and lighting to portray an artwork with accuracy and consistency are all things to be considered. Even the careful removal of an artwork from its location and its frame is labour-intensive. It needs to be done carefully, often in controlled conditions, so as not to damage the work. Museums need to ensure that specialist staff are available, a point made by noble Lords in the course of the debate. This service is significantly above and beyond the government policy that our national museums should provide free access for all to the permanent collections. The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, suggested that charging limits access, but in reality we believe that the opposite is true. Any money earned above the costs from image licensing fees goes back into the museum to help people continue to enjoy the wonders that it possesses. If museums were not able to charge for this activity, I understand that in most cases that would result in services being severely limited or withdrawn, a point that my noble friend Lord Eccles alluded to.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked what is academic and what is commercial, perhaps wanting a definition. I am sympathetic to the noble Lord’s comments about the definition of academic versus commercial, but this is a matter for the national museums to decide. I understand that each provides guidance on their website about the definitions that they use.
That would be helpful. Again, it would be up to the museums to get together to decide on a generic definition. I will certainly take that back as a useful idea to have come out of this debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, asked about the possibility of a round table of national museums, an idea I have sympathy with. I will liaise with the museums and the Government Art Collection to encourage them to meet. The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, might like to join in, as a way forward; that would be helpful, I hope, from his Royal Armouries perspective.
As for the future, the culture White Paper set out the aspiration to make the UK one of the world’s leading countries for digitised public collections. We have already seen that digitisation is having a significant impact: 61% of museums have digitised up to 50% of their collection. I understand that many larger museums have formed partnerships with technology companies—for example Google Cultural Institute—to help digitise their collections and allow access to items that have never been exhibited.
The Government’s Culture is Digital report, published earlier this year, set out policy commitments which help support the strands of work on digital capacity and innovation that were identified in the museums review last year. Particularly relevant is the task force, which included museum representatives such as the Natural History Museum and Wellcome Trust, convened by the National Archives to develop a new strategic approach to the digitisation and presentation of cultural objects. This will make collections more interoperable and sustainable, building on previous initiatives such as the Heritage Gateway, the National Archives Discovery Project and Art UK. The National Gallery is also creating and disseminating the benefits of a new innovation lab to enable cultural organisations, especially museums, to make best use of advanced digital technologies in enhancing visitor experience and creating content.
In conclusion—I am afraid that time is a bit short—national museums provide free, in-person access to the permanent collections as a condition of government grant-in-aid funding, but need to be free to generate other revenue in whatever ways they see fit. The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, spoke about Striking the Balance, and that is something I also alluded to: it is important to balance what national museums are required to do by Government with being independent and impartial.
Digital technology offers unprecedented opportunities for UK cultural organisations to engage new and hard-to-reach audiences, to become global leaders in the production of digital cultural content and to increase access to their world-class collections. Through the Culture is Digital project, the Government will work with our national museums to ensure that they are world leaders in digital content for now and the future. I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for raising the subject and bringing it into the public eye once again.