The Humanities “Crisis”—are museums and higher education doing all they can? (2013)

Coëtivy Master, Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, c. 1460-75, tempera colors, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment (The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Coëtivy Master, Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, c. 1460-75, tempera colors, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment (The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Note: this was first published as a blog post in 2013

The preservation, transmission, and advancement of knowledge in the digital age are promoted by the unencumbered use and reuse of digitized content for research, teaching, learning, and creative activities.

Memo on open access to digital representations of works in the public domain from museum, library, and archive collections, Yale University, 2011

This blunt (and for us blatantly obvious) statement—that knowledge advancement is now dependent on the unencumbered use and reuse of digital content, forces us to ask a blunt question in turn: are our educational institutions—our museums, libraries, colleges and universities—doing everything they can to advance knowledge in the digital age?

Our public museums and libraries and our colleges and universities occupy a privileged cultural space, and have earned respect born of their missions to foster and disseminate knowledge. By historical standards, public museums and libraries have been open institutions and more people than ever are taking advantage of higher education. But what is possible in terms of scale and what constitutes “open” has moved fast and far recently. To date, most museums, colleges and universities have not yet embraced the radical expansion to their missions that is now possible. Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian has spoken urgently on this topic in his brilliant Age of Scale presentation that should be required reading for all university, college, museum and library staff. Merete Sanderhoff, Researcher at the National Gallery of Denmark has also spoken eloquently about these issues in regard to art museums.

There is a brilliant opportunity before us. There is, right now, a huge global audience hungry for the knowledge that museums, colleges and universities, and libraries contain and create. Libraries have taken the lead and have created outstanding resources such as Europeana Regia, which allows for federated searching across five major libraries in four countries. Museums and higher education, however, could do more to create and disseminate open content (and by “open” we mean allowing, wherever possible, easy downloading, reuse and remixing). Many of these institutions have been timid where they should be bold and are, in our estimation, too often shirking their responsibility as cultural leaders.

At the same time the phrase “endangered humanities” has become a leitmotif in the academic press (for examples, see “Humanities Committee Sounds an Alarm” and “Making the Case for Liberal Arts”). And just this week, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released their report, The Heart of the Matter: Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive and secure nation. In today’s New York Times, David Brooks, a contributor to this study cited the statistic that,

A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors. Even over the last decade alone, the number of incoming students at Harvard who express interest in becoming humanities majors has dropped by a third.

To be sure, there are significant economic pressures on the arts and humanities. These issues have been at the top of the agenda at several recent gatherings of leaders of 4-year colleges as they assess the impact of MOOCs and other changes in the academic landscape. The future of the humanities has also been a focus at the university level. Harvard University just completed and published the “Humanities Project,” a multi-study effort to understand the history and future of humanities education and its significance. In our opinion, critical to the endurance of the humanities is its ability to scale, it’s willingness to partner, its open-ness.

Recently John Palfrey, Head of School at Phillips Academy, Andover, and president of the Board of Directors of the Digital Public Library of America, asked “Could we imagine what would happen if Phillips Academy teachers and students were working in real partnership with Khan Academy?” Our point in this post is not about partnering with Khan Academy—but rather about Dr. Palfrey’s willingness to explore new models for collaboration. We’re also not talking here about creating MOOCs—where the materials have no open license—but about creating and then contributing reusable, remix-able content to the commons. Faculty all over the world already create resources for their students. This expertise can be reworked for the web and made freely accessible—and faculty can build on the open resources others have made available. The value of free, high-quality education for a global audience is incalculable.

Of all the humanities disciplines, we are naturally most interested in our own field, art history. Here we see museums, universities, funders and professional organizations—institutions jam-packed with curatorial and art historical expertise—doing less than they could to promote an understanding of art and it’s history for a vastly larger potential audience.

Open-ness is not an end in itself, it enables the creation of new work and new knowledge. Smarthistory (now at Khan Academy) is a case in point. Smarthistory would have been nearly impossible if we had to rely solely on the resources that museums make available. Resources like Wikipedia and Flickr (where users can add Creative Commons licensing to their images) have proved invaluable and enabled us to create high-quality introductory art history content and offer it freely on the web. This situation is changing for the better, but too slowly. Smarthistory currently offers more than 500 videos and hundreds of essays written by scores of scholars, and this content attracted nearly 1.5 million visitors from more than 200 countries during the spring 2013 semester alone.

We are arguing that museums and institutions of higher education use the web in a truly collaborative, open manner that will ultimately create a huge new public that is informed and that values the arts and humanities. Open-ness will create a vast new audience that will include those that never participate beyond the web, but it will also create new students, new visitors to the physical museum, and new patrons. An open culture in museums and institutions of higher education will do more to make the case for the value of the arts and humanities than any other single initiative.

What does this actually mean for museums and other cultural institutions?

1) Enable the downloading of public domain content

It means contributing to our cultural commons in a way that encourages reuse and remixing. Museums should enable and promote the easy downloading of high-resolution images of public domain works in their collection without asking visitors to agree to a complicated “terms of use” document dense with legal terminology (this is what Creative Commons was created to address). Except where private collections are an issue, non-flash photography in museum galleries should be permitted, even encouraged.

2) Provide clear, prominent licensing

It means that museums should provide and post licensing on media and other online resources that makes clear what can and can’t be done (licenses should be as open as possible and encourage reuse and remixing). Where restrictions remain, not-for-profit uses should be privileged.

3) Hyperlink

It means museums should link to each other and to credible not-for-profit resources on the web (see “Why the Google Art Project is Important” for an example of why this is critical). Museums can do more on the web than provide information about their collections and exhibitions, and how and when to visit. The web is defined by hyperlinks—it is a place where we can join words and images together across domains and institutions. To date though, most museums link only to their own resources. Imagine a newspaper that only referenced their own articles! Museums have enormous authority and ought to support high-quality external resources so that the most reliable sources appear at the top of a Google or Bing search.

4) Publish! Publish! Publish!

It means curators and faculty should dramatically increase the reuse and creation of openly-licensed content for the web. In the classroom, faculty can reuse, remix and create open educational resources—both in their teaching and in their scholarly work. It also means that museums look at their resources from the perspective of someone who is less interested in the institution itself and more interested in larger cultural narratives. We believe this will lead to exemplary inter-institutional projects like Europeana.

5) Provide leadership

It means that professional organizations and foundations that support art historians and museums should encourage and even require the use of open licenses, and alert their members to opportunities like this one. This is an increasingly common practicein the sciences.

6) Promote those who contribute to the Commons

It means that tenure and promotion committees and the review and promotion processes at museums should generously reward faculty and staff for creating high-quality openly licensed educational content and for significantly adding to the commons.

A small number of museums do some or all of these things already. The Walters Art Museum, The Smithsonian Commons, The National Gallery of Denmark, the Brooklyn Museum and LACMA, for example, have taken a leadership role, but much more work remains to be done.

These six directives are urgently needed now, not years from now. The more that we support a global understanding of cultural heritage, the more we secure the future of the arts and humanities. To choose to hold our resources apart suggests values that are not, as the Yale memo stated, concerned with the “preservation, transmission, and advancement of knowledge in the digital age.”

These may be new challenges but they are certainly not new values. Thomas Jefferson wrote,

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space…and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation. quoted by Lewis Hyde in Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership

How long will we make excuses? Billions of people are waiting…

by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Humanities “Crisis”—are museums and higher education doing all they can? (2013)," in Smarthistory, January 8, 2021, accessed May 24, 2024,