A rant about museum photography

I don’t generally use this blog for rants. But I’m going to make an exception in this case, given that the topic is timely, it directly involves the role of museums, and it really got on my nerves.

As some of you may know, my wife Brett teaches geology and biology at Patrick Henry Community College. It’s difficult teaching geology in a small community college, where there are fewer resources available and it’s difficult to take students on extended field trips. In order to expose her historical geology students to a greater slice of geologic time than what’s available in the Martinsville area, she applied for and received funding from the Virginia Community College System to develop a proof-of-concept virtual field trip, focusing on the geologic history of a specific area that is too far away to easily take a class on a field trip. This will include a digital textbook, which will have lots of photographs, diagrams, and videos, as well as online content, possibly to include Gigapan images. Once it’s completed, the intention is to make this completely open access, so that anyone can freely access the material. For the initial effort, Brett chose to focus on the geologic history of the Black Hills and the Badlands. We leave for South Dakota in a few days to begin working on the project.

Since the focus of this is on geologic history, one thing Brett wants to emphasize is the changes in the mammal fauna in the White River Group, the sediments that make up the Badlands. VMNH has practically nothing from these units, but going through our museum photos (we have a lot!) we found that we have photos of a range of White River critters that are on exhibit at other museums (top of page, Protoceras from the South Dakota School of Mines Museum of Geology).

Now, I admit I may have overthought this next part. When people use photos of VMNH specimens on things such as websites, we like to know about it, largely for publicity purposes; we want everyone to know when our stuff is being used (we put links on our site, Facebook page, etc.) With that in mind, I suggested to Brett that, strictly as a courtesy, she should contact those museums and ask permission to use photos of some of their exhibit specimens, emphasizing the following points:

  • They will be used for educational purposes
  • They will be freely distributed, so there is no commercial use
  • The museum will be credited as the holder of the specimen
  • Since we already have the photos, no action is required on the part of the museum

Brett sent a form email to several museums. She’s still waiting to hear back from the Denver Museum of Natural History and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The South Dakota School of Mines responded almost immediately, and said that using the photos under those terms was no problem. Then there was the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which sent this response:

“Since personal photos are not allowed for other purposes, the Museum would not be able to grant permission for the usage as you’ve outlined it. Like I said earlier, you are free to show these to your students, but to include them in a larger virtual field trip program, we’d have to have a formal license agreement, which would also include a licensing fee and in which we’d likely want you to use our photography instead of yours.”

I was absolutely floored. Remember, this request was for a completely free, educational product, for which AMNH would receive acknowledgement, and to which AMNH did not have to contribute any resources whatsoever.

(Just to be clear: this response came from one of AMNH’s administrative offices, NOT from one of the scientists there.)

I fully appreciate the financial difficulties faced by museums; in fact, I would argue that I understand that better than most people at AMNH. VMNH’s Collection’s Policy spells out that the museum is to receive compensation for any commercial use of our specimens or their derivatives (photos or casts). But we place no restrictions on the scientific or educational use of our specimens except what is necessary to preserve the physical objects and their associated data. For example (although this isn’t exactly analogous), when several VMNH fossil insect specimens were described and figured in AMNH’s open access publication American Museum Novitates, we did not charge AMNH a licensing fee.

This is especially stunning when current issues in paleontology are considered. There is a strong drive within the paleontology community to make our work more available rather than less. The Open Source Paleontologist and Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week! have been at the forefront of making paleontology more widely accessible; their arguments were among the reasons we turned Jeffersoniana into an open access journal, and it has become clear that near-universal open access of paleontological research is just a matter of time. Open access is now extending beyond reviewed manuscripts to include raw data, such as the recently-launched Dental Microwear Image Library. The same philosophy is why I post photos of new discoveries from our excavations online almost as soon as we make them.

Efforts to make fossils accessible have also recently been in the news due to the auctioning of an almost certainly illegally collected specimen of Tarbosaurus from Mongolia. The professional paleontology community expressed outrage that this specimen could be locked away, only viewable at the whims of its owner. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology put out a statement in opposition to the auction, and a petition calling on the auction house to cancel the sale was signed by numerous paleontologists, ironically including several from AMNH who have been instrumental in helping Mongolia keep their fossil resources in the public trust.

In various online posts about the Tarbosaurus auction, there were some comments made about professional paleontologists trying to hoard all the fossils for themselves and never letting anyone else see them (the old “ivory tower” theme). This was addressed very effectively in a post at Pseudoplocephalus describing how museums work to make specimens accessible, and in fact I was writing a similar post when Brett had this issue with AMNH. And that started me thinking about other scenarios. Next week I’m submitting a paper that involves gomphotheres to Jeffersoniana. My favorite Gomphotherium mount is the one at AMNH; if I had included a photo of that specimen in my manuscript, do you suppose AMNH would have demanded I pay a licensing fee? I’ll bet they wouldn’t. For that matter, “unofficial” images of AMNH specimens are all over the internet. For example, Matt Wedel used an image of the neck of AMNH’s Apatosaurus mount in an SV-POW! post. It makes me wonder, if Brett were a paleontologist instead “merely” a community college professor who’s interested in education, would she have received a different response?

Gomphotherium from the University of Nebraska State Museum; NOT the AMNH specimen!

And, for that matter, do you suppose The New York Times had to pay a fee for the images used in this article about the AMNH dinosaur gallery, in which the photos were taken by NYT staff, and which were distributed in print and online, for profit?

Brett will be able to complete this particular project even without the AMNH specimens, especially since South Dakota School of Mines has been so cooperative. But it’s still a shame that AMNH feels that they should try to restrict the use of their collections and publicly-viewable exhibits in this way, and I feel it’s at odds with the mission of natural history museums.

This entry was posted in Museums, Science, education, and philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A rant about museum photography

  1. mike says:

    Nicely put Butch. It is kind of like this,
    I read an article online for free with images about X, I think it looks cool,
    I go pay money to see X at it’s location.
    I would not have done that if I had not discovered it by reading about it for free.

    People forget, this is selling 101. The movies have been doing it forever.
    Show off your work, people will come.

    Sounds to me South Dakota School of Mines will benefit from this. I know they have
    my vote to see them when I am in that area.


  2. Mike Taylor says:

    You’re right — this is an outrageous response from the AMNH, and directly in contravention of the museum’s reason for existing. I suggest you tell your story to one of the palaeontologists there and see if there’s anything they can do to get this idiocy overturned.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    Oh, and I had no idea we’d been in any way a contributory factor in your decision to make Jeffersonia open access. I can’t tell you how delighted that makes me!

  4. altondooley says:

    We’re probably going to contact someone there, as much as anything to let the paleontologists know what’s going on. I would be pretty mad if I found out we had done something like that, but in our case the marketing folks would consult with the curator anyway (of course, we have a much smaller staff than AMNH).

  5. George says:


    I am going through the same bull sniggle wit a computer administrator for a picture of a Copper Head Snake and a Cotton mouth snake. We created a Hazardous Substances Data Bank record for North American Anstrigtonon (sorry for butcheing the genus name. I wwant to place two JPEGS and down loaded two pictures to place as a jpeg a in the file and he indicated I had to have express permission from the SI zoo which is a federally funded zoo we would make sure we would indicate wehre the jpeg came from with the link and then I got bs are you sure the pictures min fedefral domain or where they pafrt of a private contractors picts. I told them it was in public domain with no restrictions but no avail. I am wondering if you folks would have two public domain pict we could use with appropiate indication where the picts came from. Let me know if you need some help at Carmel Chyurch. I always like the finding of something interesting

  6. altondooley says:

    The Denver MNH responded to Brett today, and said they were fine with using photos from their exhibits as long as they’re credited.

  7. yesmyliege says:

    Best to call on the phone – that’s an archaic device that doesn’t necessarily offer texting, btw 😀 – and speak as a person asking for help from another person. Take the bureaucrats out of the loop.

  8. Vicki says:

    This kind of thing happens, not only with museums, but with state historical societies and state libraries/archives. I do cemetery research and geneaology for a local historical society and run into the same situations. It’s especially maddening when you consider the information was most likely donated freely to those institutions for the public’s use.

  9. Grenda Dennis says:

    I like the Denver Museum of Natural History. Go there almost every time I am in Denver. Like the minerals and rocks.

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