Yearly Archives: 2019

What are museums even for?

I’ve been working in and for natural history museums for nearly 30 years. Most people I meet don’t understand what a museum is for. Worryingly, some of the people who run them don’t seem to either. The telling phrase, always uttered with an air of incredulity, is this: “Only 5% (or a similar tiny fraction) of the collection is on display!” The implication is the museum is somehow failing, and should display More Stuff.

Well, they used to display More Stuff; a century ago a typical museum had thousands of objects packed into cases with cryptic labels and no context, and people complained: they were dull and stuffy and never changed. Museums now spend quite a bit of their budget and staff time developing new exhibits, with well-written signage and videos and interactive games. But it’s hard to satisfy everyone, because of a basic fact most people don’t know. Museums are not for exhibitions.

Te Papa has 150,000 pickled fish. How many would you like on display? Definitely not 5% of the collection; most are pretty unattractive, and of interest only to a fish researcher. Which is fine, because that’s who they’re for. A museum’s collections are for research, not display. It’s nice that some of the collection is interesting and educational, but that’s not why it’s there. The best analogy of a museum is an archive or research library. In the National Library in Wellington, you can see the Treaty of Waitangi, the 1893 suffrage petition, and He Whakaputanga, the 1835 Declaration of Independence, but the National Library’s business is not putting on blockbuster exhibitions. Its librarians concern themselves with public enquiries, academics and researchers, and most importantly preserving the publications of New Zealand for posterity.

Libraries are charged with making the treasures they hold as accessible as possible to the public, but if they tried to put every book and pamphlet, or even 5% of them, into a little perspex case with an informative label, they wouldn’t be able to do anything else. So why do we expect this of museums? Like a document archive, a museum’s first job is to act as a storehouse and protect its collections. A feather cloak will moulder and decay if you keep it under the bed. A moa bone on the mantelpiece will be cracked and broken within a generation. A museum with climate-controlled storage and acid-free packaging can at least make sure this stuff is available to future generations. Delicate insect specimens collected by Joseph Banks on Cook’s voyage in 1769 are still carefully preserved and intact in London and Copenhagen, and curators strive to make sure things acquired today will last for 200 years.

A museum has to collect; if it relied on donations, it will end up with nothing but the old, the unwanted, and the durable, dropped off on the way to the dump. Museums end up with lots of ironmongery, typewriters, and childhood shell collections—but a good museum curator will be out there after the Women’s March on Washington, collecting discarded placards and pink pussyhats. Museum collecting has been (wrongly) blamed for driving species extinct, but much of what we know about huia comes from the small proportion of specimens that ended up in museums, not shot for their tail feathers and dumped.

And finally, a museum has to do research. Museum collections are invaluable for learning about human history, evolution, biodiversity decline, and climate change. New species are constantly being discovered in museum collections, and this sort of taxonomic research can only be done with the massive comparative collections museums have built up over centuries. All museums have, or should have, a permanent staff of researchers, historians, and scientists. They’re called curators, and their numbers are, sadly, declining. When a moa skull came up for auction on Trade Me, I suggested the best place for it was a museum. Commenters were livid: museums already have plenty of moa bones, and they never put them on display. But museums aren’t for displays; moa bones are irreplaceable, and need to be somewhere they can be looked after for centuries, not flogged off online for a quick buck.

Museums look after our natural and cultural heritage. They’re archives of objects, libraries of shells and shoes, research institutes devoted to the study of things. Millions of things. We sometimes forget what they do, because our experience is what we see on a rainy Sunday afternoon. But museums are much more than that.

(A version of this appeared in New Zealand Geographic 158, July–August 2019)

A Wikimedia Strategy for a Radio Station

I had a chat with Nelson radio station Fresh FM, and they were very interested in what Wikipedia and Commons might mean for them. The following is a crash course in copyright and WikiCommons for them, and any other radio station or sound archive.

  1. Under NZ law, the station owns the copyright for any creative work created by its employees (audio and photos) in work time unless their employment contracts state differently.
  2. Again under NZ law, that copyright is automatically All Rights Reserved for 50 years after the end of the year the work was made or first broadcast (whichever’s later). That means no making copies, sharing, mixing, quoting etc by anyone without the station’s explicit permission.
  3. A few exceptions for criticism and study, but that’s it. No “non-commercial” exemption. No parody/satire exemption – that’s illegal in NZ. No “Fair Use” (that’s American).
  4. What if the station goes bust in the next 50 years? Whoever buys the assets buys the copyrights. Sometimes it’s impossible to know who the copyright holder is, so the work’s effectively unusable.
  5. Listening to a podcast is not “making a copy”. Nor is streaming it. Posting MP3s to one’s own website or emailing them to people is though.
  6. There is a licensing scheme called Creative Commons that lets you choose a more lenient licence than All Rights Reserved. Examples include CC Attribution (anyone can use the work for any purpose but they have to credit the copyright holder), CC Attribution Share-Alike (ditto but anything remixed out of the work has to be shared under the same open licence), and CC Attribution Share-Alike Non-Commercial (ditto, but nobody can make money out of it). More here.
  7. “Non-commercial” sounds great, but it stops any other media from using the work, as well as some heritage organisations, publishers, educational establishments etc. Also you’ll want to have a lawyer enforcing it.
  8. Wikimedia Commons (WikiCommons) is the sister website to Wikipedia, and stores all the maps and photos Wikipedia draws on. It also has some video and a little bit of audio. Everything in WikiCommons is shareable under an open licence like CC Attribution, CC Attribution Share-Alike, or Public Domain. Notably, “non-commercial” is NOT an open licence, so WikiCommons can’t host it, so Wikipedia can’t use it.
  9. Copyright holders can choose to share their work to WikiCommons under an open licence. It’s effectively an irrevocable donation, and only they can do it – there’s a short legal document involved.
  10. There are a multitude of possible uses of radio in WikiCommons, emphasis on educational and encyclopedia-useful content: • Someone stating their name and occupation, which can be added to their Wikipedia infobox so people can hear how their name’s pronounced • An explanation of something in their own words, such as an artist talking about their work • A song or musical performance (note that the tune and lyrics might be copyrighted to someone else, even if the recording’s copyrighted to the station – it gets complex) • Oral history of an event or place that’s in Wikipedia • Historic broadcasts from the archives • Pronunciations of words in a New Zealand accent, or Te Reo pronunciations of place names by a local speaker
  11. Audio needs to be converted into an open file format (see instructions)
  12. A station that wanted to share audio should create a Commons category (example) and uploads should be made by someone with a Wikipedia account and something on their user page making it clear they’re an employee and authorised to release audio to Commons. I suggest working with an experienced Wikipedian to set all this up.

Smaller stations can take the lead on this while big stations spend years arguing about protocols and procedures. No radio station in NZ is engaging with Wikipedia or WikiCommons yet. Any community-centred radio station should see releasing some of this audio under an open licence as part of their mandate to share their work. WikiCommons is archived permanently, so that audio will be safe no matter what happens to stations or archives in NZ in the future.

A digital strategy for a small museum

These recommendations were developed after meeting with Otautau Museum, Southland, on April 24, 2019, but they’re applicable to any small heritage institution with limited staff and budget. The examples here are for an imaginary museum, the Staveley Historical Museum, with a director, part-time registrar, and various volunteers who write labels, blog, register objects, host school groups, and give tours.

Mission statement

A museum needs to have a clear mission statement that includes a responsibility to make its collections as accessible as possible to its stakeholders. In many cases the stakeholders will be the owners of the collection (likely the community) and those who fund it (national funding bodies or regional government). If collections have already been paid for by the public, they should be made public and usable for whatever purpose the stakeholders desire. The museum’s job is to safeguard the physical objects, not the images and information.


It is vital the museum has a web presence. Most stakeholders and interested parties will not be able to physically visit a regional museum. The constituency of even a small museum is global. Even a single web page is sufficient to outline the museum’s history, holdings, copyright policy, and of course location and contact information.

The best solution for a small museum is a hosting service such as, which costs $220–$300 per year, and often offers email and domain name services as part of a bundle. It’s also possible to use a cheaper web host and install a free website service like, but this requires more IT skill. Whatever solution is chosen, the site should be easily editable, with staff and volunteers able to be assigned logins and editing privileges over different sections as needed.


The museum needs to register a domain name such as A .com or extension implies the museum is a business; a .org might be more appropriate, but .nz domains are best. Domain name registration is about $40/year if not covered by a hosting service.


Professional organisations need multiple email addresses; at least and Email addresses are often offered as part of a hosting bundle, and can redirect to other addresses such as gmail. It’s important that email is archived and available to future staffers, and thus that professional and personal email accounts are kept separate.

Copyright policy

In a nutshell, under New Zealand copyright law any creative work is copyrighted for 50 years after the death of its creator. Anyone who commissions a creative work owns its copyright, unless other arrangements were made. With a few exceptions, there is no “fair use” provision in NZ law: anyone wanting to use a copyrighted work for any purpose needs to get permission. A variety of Creative Commons licenses offer an alternative to this all-rights-reserved copyright, allowing a copyright holder to make works freely available on a “pre-approved” basis under certain conditions (such as always giving credit when they’re used).

The ability to share and use works in the collection, especially photographs, is a critical part of a museum’s mission, so everybody involved, from the entire board who set policy to the front of house staff who deal with visitor photography. The museum should have clear copyright policies, stated on their website for a) works they’ve created and b) works in the collection.

If a museum is publicly-funded, graphics and photographs (which I’m calling “works”) that it creates should be made available under a free open license, such as Creative Commons Attribution, for anyone to use for any purpose. The public have paid for these works, so they should be allowed to have them. Having a collection of images of the museum and its people freely available online also makes it as easy as possible for media and visitors to talk about and share the museum experience.

Works in the collection will fall into three basic categories.

  1. Works with “no known copyright” (the NZ equivalent of “public domain”): mostly photographs taken pre-1944, or where the created died more than 50 years ago. These are no longer copyrighted to anyone, certainly not the museum. The museum cannot license them under any conditions, because you have to own a copyright to license something. Just scanning a photograph does not create a new copyrighted work – although this hasn’t been tested under NZ law, it’s the assumption the large heritage organisations here make. Therefore works in this category should be made available freely under a “no known copyright” license, which in Creative Commons terms is CC0 or public domain. Anyone can use them for any purpose. The museum can indicate they would like to be credited as the source of course.
  2. Works where the museum was given the copyright as well as the work. This is uncommon, as both museums and donors often don’t realise that giving someone a physical copy of a work, such as a print or negatives, is not the same as signing over the copyright. If possible, talk through these conditions with donors, pointing out that if copyright is not assigned the museum will have to negotiate with representatives of the donor for the next 50 years or more every time a photo is used. One of the requirements of a collection being given to a publicly-funded institution to preserve in perpetuity is that the public have access to and use of collection images, so these works should be released under an open licence, such as CC Attribution or CC Attribution Share-Alike. (If donors are not happy with this, they’re of course welcome to set up and staff a private museum to look after their image collection!)
  3. Works that are still in copyright. The problem here is that often the copyright holder is unclear. Copyrights usually pass to the beneficiary of a will when the copyright holder dies, or are purchased along with other assets when a business goes bankrupt. For the next 50 years, someone still has to approve use of those images, but it can be almost impossible to know who. The museum needs to do its best to track down copyright holders, and ideally arrange a copyright donation, but if this attempt is fruitless the works are considered “orphaned”. It is perfectly possible for a museum to share and use orphaned works with a clear statement that the copyright holder is unknown and they welcome information on who it might be; if the owner come forward, they can negotiate licensing terms or donation, but this will be quite rare, and in the meantime the work will be available to the public. A good copyright policy for a museum is “open by default”: all its works will be made as freely available as possible, and the museum credited where possible, unless other conditions apply. For example, the copyright might belong to someone else, the donor imposed conditions of access, or the photos might be culturally sensitive and require permission from the relevant iwi or whanau.

Collections online

A small museum with an “open by default” policy has a responsibility to make images of its collections available online to its stakeholders, and it’s wise to post as much information online as possible to cater for potential visitors or interested parties in NZ and overseas. There is a common misconception that collections online deter visitors. The opposite is true: people will come to see a real object that they’ve only seen pictures of online, and widely-distributed collection images will attract visitors who might never have known of the museum’s existence.

Collection photographs should be as high a quality as possible, and usable in print, websites, education, and the media. Scale bars and colour swatches should be kept to one side, to be cropped out as required. Backgrounds should be white or light-coloured, and smooth and even in tone. Lighting should be excellent: cheap LED lights are easily available on Ali Express, as are backdrops, diffusion boxes (sold for photographing jewellery), tripods, and camera remotes. A DSLR camera with good depth of field is ideal, but even high-end compact cameras can give excellent results if set to a small aperture with long exposure times, good lighting, and a remote shutter. Decent camera equipment and in training for staff and volunteers is money well spent.

There are several tools available to make online galleries of collections. When these are being chosen, the following criteria are important:

  1. Cost: The service should ideally be free. Time spent manually creating records is also a cost.
  2. Licensing: It should be possible to state a default open licence such as CC-BY, and adjust the licence for public domain or photos used with permission. The service should never add its own license to the work.
  3. Downloads: Downloading images at a number of different resolutions should be easy.
  4. Integration with collection management system: When a new object is photographed and registered, it should automatically be available online if its record shows a compatible license.
  5. Unlimited number of objects displayable.
  6. Easily-tailored fields that display appropriate collection information equally well for pinned insects and farm machinery.


Wikimedia Commons is the free, openly-licensed image library that supports Wikipedia pages. It’s also an excellent tool for sharing image collections online, used by museums large and small. It meets five of the six criteria above, but does not automatically integrate with a CMS; image uploads can be performed in bulk by exporting collection records as a spreadsheet and using an upload tool like Pattypan.

The great advantage of Commons is discoverability. Not only can images used on Wikipedia pages, they’ll be preferentially indexed in Google image searches and in the previews that accompany most standard Google searches.

One thing to note: Commons is hosted in the USA, so uses US rather than NZ copyright law. The main differences are that in the US copyright lasts for 70 years after death, not 50, and that images from 1923 or before are in the public domain. This means a museum might own a photo taken in 1933 that’s not copyrighted in NZ, but still in copyright overseas. If the museum owned that copyright, it could release it into Commons under an open license; if someone else did, and it was less that 70 years after their death, the museum would have to organise a copyright release, or just skip the image.


It makes a lot of sense for a small museum to be engaging with Wikipedia and creating or improving articles. Wikipedia is a hugely influential image source – the fifth-most-visited website and near the top of most Google searches. Any can edit a Wikipedia article, and the sheer number of collaborating volunteer editors keeps articles quite accurate and speeds up fact-checking and error-correction.

Rather than adding basic factual information to the museum’s own website, staff should be improving the Wikipedia coverage instead, and adding the museum’s historical photos and collection images via Wikimedia Commons. Any work done here is a far better time investment, and will reach vastly more people; a good Wikipedia article can be read by 1000 or more people a day, far more than might visit the museum in person or read its publications.

Good articles for Staveley Museum to improve would be Staveley, New Zealand, other regional settlements like Mount Somers, Springburn, and Ruapuna, the historic building Ross Cottage, historic photos for the lime kilns article, and fossil species from the local limestone. One thing the museum could not do is create or improve an article about itself – that has to be left to other editors because of conflict of interest rules.

Wikidata, Wikisource

These are also projects relevant to small museums but will be dealt with in future posts.