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 squarespace.com, 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 wordpress.org, 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 staveleymuseum.nz. A .com or .co.nz 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 director@staveleymuseum.nz and info@staveleymuseum.nz. 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.