21C/19C – On the archives

A huge part of my work is to find images and to convince archive leaderships to let me use them. In principle, the images of the anthropometric era are in the public domain, as their photographers died more than 70 years ago. Still, many archives do not easily let go of the collections. Here’s a few of my experiences.

The policies of the archives are of an astonishing diversity. Many put the images online, open for researchers and the (informed) public to consult.
In some cases it is impossible to save these images, but then there is always the ‘print screen’ option.

There is an enormous difference in digital (resolution) quality of the online images, and for some this is part of the (economic) policy. E.g. SMB (Berlin) has a light version online, under a Creative Commons license (mention, share alike, non commercial) and a High Resolution version that costs, when asked, 100 euros an image ‘for artistic use’. The Gallica French database has many images free for use, but the resolution is so low that use in my project is excluded. The Australian Northern Territories library has images in the public domain.

Many archives have no clearly communicated rules. They have copyright-protected their reproducion of the images and seem to act ‘à la tête du client’. This is the case at Quai Branly, where I hope to get to use very important series of images. They have a deal with an Italian firm for the sale of their images, and kept the freedom to hand out images to projects of their choice. Upon asking, I was informed I had to send a list of the images I want to use and an official request to the head of the museum. There is no communication about the criteria. I still have to hand in my request.

The most positive of my endeavours is the contact with the Netherlands’ centre Wereldculturen. It is a recent fusion between the archives of the Africamuseum (Berg en Dal), the Volkenkundig Museum (Leiden) and the Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam). They gave me a very reasonable price for the handling of the High Resolution images. When I later informed them that I had failed to receive the grant, the answer came in the form of a compliment: ‘Antje Van Wichelen’s project (is) strong enough to support her’ and, intelligently, ‘I am not in favor of the use of low resolution images from the internet’. I asked and received 2600 images in the best resolution at hand. It certainly was a serious effort on their part. We are often in contact: I mention the institute in my work and I keep them informed on my use of images so they can mention it in their database.

Other archives are open to visitors, and you may use the images, but if you want to alter them you must ask permission (Creative Commons – ND, No Derivatives). This is the case of the Pitt Rivers Museum with many images I would love to use. I asked permission and it was not granted. No reason was given.

As for reasons, these are often not clearly communicated. Sometimes it seems simply economic. There are a lot of rumours and whispers, and much depends on the people leading the archives. To be continued.