BBC promises to put 200,000 publicly owned oil paintings online by 2012

The BBC has struck a deal to put all of Britain's publicly owned paintings online -- presently, 80 percent of the 200,000 publicly owned paintings are not on display. This is ferociously awesome, at least on the face of it, though one can imagine all kinds of ways they could screw this up (crappy EULA, stupid Flash-based DRM, low-rez only, wasting license-fee money trying to keep non-British IP addresses out of the collection, etc). But, assuming they do this the way you'd expect something built by and for the Internet would work, this is the best news for free culture that I've heard since the BBC announced that they were going to put all their archives online for free remixing. Let's just hope that this promise is an easier one to keep -- it's an embarrassment to see this once-great beacon of public service reinvent itself as a DRM platform (iPlayer) and a glorified video retailer for Americans (Worldwide).
The BBC is to put every one of the 200,000 oil paintings in public ownership in the UK on the internet as well as opening up the Arts Council's vast film archive online as part of a range of initiatives that it has pledged will give it a "deeper commitment to arts and music".

Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, unveiled the ambitious plans today at a London event showcasing the corporation's music, arts and culture output for 2009 and beyond.

The move may help the BBC get back on the front foot after almost a week of negative headlines over its refusal to broadcast the Gaza humanitarian aid appeal.

A partnership with the Public Catalogue Foundation charity will see all the UK's publicly owned oil paintings – 80% of which are not on public display – placed on the internet by 2012.

BBC to put nation's oil paintings online


  1. It’s stuff like this that will be the glory of the internet: museums that you can tour with goggles (for the 3D effect), giving you the ability to get very close and see all the detail, which is sometimes impossible in a museum.

  2. just keep Microsoft out of the loop… we don’t want this thing becoming a Silverlight only website which will exclude Linux users.

  3. Gotta love the Grauniad…

    In other partnerships, Radio 4 is working with the British Museum on a complementary online project for its 100-part series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, which will tell the history of the world through objects from the museum’s collection.

    The online partnership will enable viewers to explore the objects online after watching the programmes.

    Out of interest, how do people outside the UK see the BBC?

  4. Oil paintings? That’s weirdly specific. How about watercolours?

    Incidentally, Glasgow City Council *isn’t* trying to sue “anyone who posts any pic of Salvador Dali’s ‘Christ of St John of the Cross'” – they’re going after companies making commercial use of the image. Slightly different.

  5. wasting license-fee money trying to keep non-British IP addresses out of the collection

    no doubt. I have to resort to torrents to get my Doctor Who fix.

    Why can’t I just buy a license from here in the US? Also, why does BBC America stink?

  6. Why can’t I just buy a license from here in the US?

    Because that would require all sorts of policy changes on behalf of the BBC, the Government, and a bunch of annoying foreign bureaucracy to go along with it.

    Also, it wouldn’t help, as the rights holders (even for things like Doctor Who which is mostly a BBC production) limit the geographic limits of the programmes and available formats (DVD, streaming, DRM), not the BBC.

  7. The BBC, like most of the UK establishment, is in hock to Microsoft; more so, probably, than in the USA. It’s very likely that this initiative will require Microsoft software for the “full experience”. I will be amazed if it’s worth anything.

    Incidentally, here in the UK, the flame of Public Service Broadcasting is being carried by Channel 4. Anyone wanting good quality news independent of the Government line listens to them first. There are still plenty of good journos working for the BBC (mainly the old guard), but they’re more and more being made to toe the line and gradually being culled.

  8. This is likely to rock: there is an ongoing cataloging process of oil paintings in public ownership in various musuems and galleries []. The Imperial War Museum one is particularly good. So putting them online ought to be relatively straightforward.

    I think that they’ve started on the oil paintings because this is a format that’s inherently hard to do – you can knock off a couple of watercolours in an hour, so there are probably millions of them in public ownership. Oils are hard, so there are fewer.

    With any luck by then the BBC will have abandoned the iPlayer. I can dream.

  9. The thing is that the BBC may own the physical paintings, but the copyrights of the images for recent paintings belong to the artists. The article about the Dali painting that one of the other commenters posted pointed out that this painting was unusual because Dali sold the copyright as well as the painting.

  10. With respect to Jeff at #1, there are qualities of the museum experience that are unique. Ambient light, the height from the floor and other qualities where the media is seen in its original format are elements that museums can capture, and a screen can’t. Also, some 3D elements remain hard to realize, such as the lustre of gold as used in many oils.

    The example the article uses, J. M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up is already online at Wikimedia, but it didn’t keep me from visiting the Met’s exhibit of Turner where I could stand in relation to the man’s works as he expected I’d see them. The show also displayed surprises, like a study for one work where the imprint of Turner’s hands were still visible where he grasped around the frame, and the brilliant little sketches he made of Parliament as it burned in 1834.

    All that said, the BBC ought to do as Cory says and get those remixable pics up there asap.

  11. Maybe they could strike a deal with Google Earth like the museo del Prado in Madrid.
    I mean really, to be able to look at Hieronimus Bosch in more detail than one could ever possibly get if one actualy stood in front of his work, that really blows me away.

  12. “Why can’t I just buy a license from here in the US?”

    Brilliant. Seriously. The UK is bust (no industry) but we can do a reasonable bit of arts and media. Why not go global? Sure, you’d get the raving xenophobes ranting about not wanting to share, and people like Johnsto, above, pointing out the difficulties. But “policy changes” are just words, and so is “annoying foreign bureaucracy”.

    And the rights holders? Well, cut them out (and their programmes) until they are begging to get in. Crikey, imagine the opportunities – exporting culture, a world view, and the unalloyed joy of no-advert radio / tv. Plus a useful bit of income. With minimal outlay in terms of distribution. Win-win-win.

    Say you are in America – you buy your licence, put in your keycode and, with a hey nonny noh (I do apologise), you’re off to a world of adventure with Blue Peter, The Clangers, and, erm, Blackadder? Well, anyway, you get the point. And it would be a two-way process – the BBC taking from the best of world culture and using this to inform it’s programming.

    Right, I’m off to write to the director of the beeb.

  13. it’s an embarrassment to see this once-great beacon of public service reinvent itself as a DRM platform (iPlayer)

    Nope, the BBC is still great!

    As is iplayer. From a consumer (and BBC licence payer) viewpoint I’ve been happily watching David Attenborough and Dr Who on iplayer when I want to, which just worked straight-off on both pc and mac at home. The only bad bit is not being able to use it when travelling abroad.

    To see how good BBC iplayer is, try the alternative (commercial channel) ITV’s rival ‘catch up’ service, which uses Microsoft silverlight- clunky installing, sensitive to download speed (no point trying at 9-10pm on a rainy night in central London when the whole neigborhood is online), unskippable dreadful adverts and mac unfriendly -trying to work out why it kept getting stuck at the ads on the mac took too many automated replies to persist.

  14. It’s unlikely that these will be put online under any sensible copyleft. I was looking into old maps recently and it appears that the various British museums got together and took the line that photographing an old map (or oil painting) gives them a copyright in the resulting image.

    This is a bit of a stretch under the law which requires originality, but that’s their position. Government funded institutions keeping things out of the hands of the taxpayer, as per usual.

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