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OKFest 2014 took place in the Kulturbrauerei—a converted brewery that now serves as a complex of arts and culture venues. Photo by Meredith Holmgren

OKFest 2014 took place in the Kulturbrauerei—a converted brewery that now serves as a complex of arts and culture venues. Photo by Meredith Holmgren

  • Open Culture at the 2014 Open Knowledge Festival

    This year’s Open Knowledge Festival (OKFest) brought together over one thousand participants to share their work in transparency and open access to government data. Taking place July 15 to 17 in Berlin, Germany, the festival included a wide range of panel topics, from development sector analytics and election monitoring tools to storytelling and cultural heritage policy. Opting for a dynamic framework of a festival, rather than that of a conventional conference, there were a wide range of participatory activities in addition to prepared panel presentations, including a robust “unconference” program, workshops, performances, skill sharing, and hack-a-thons.

    One thematic thread that ran through the event was open cultural data, the principles of which foster free use and unrestricted public access to cultural assets stewarded by cultural heritage institutions, such as galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (a.k.a. GLAMs). With increasing demand for digital cultural assets across the world, open cultural heritage projects, such as those initiated by the Getty, the Walter’s Art Museum, the Rijksmuseum, and Europeana, have gained significant traction in recent years and garnered quite a bit of attention from researchers and media outlets. With momentum building both within and outside of cultural institutions to make cultural assets more digitally accessible, and equally as much debate about the merits of declaring assets as public domain works, I looked forward to learning more about the open culture community and ongoing collaborations between cultural heritage institutions and open culture professionals from around the world.

    Indeed, the open cultural heritage events at OKFest did not disappoint. The program started with a pre-festival workshop at the Wikimedia Deutschland offices, titled “Open Data in Cultural Heritage.” Around fifty participants from across the world gathered to present their work and discuss ongoing activities. While much of the content focused on advances in the German cultural context (e.g. Wikimedia Deutschland, Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, Museum für Naturkunde) presenters who hailed from Finland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, in addition to Germany, shared their experiences with cultural heritage initiatives. Hearing their case studies—though exclusively from the European continent, where public support for this work is arguably the strongest—provided a unique comparative perspective toward current developments in the field, ongoing pilot projects, policy debates, and challenges encountered by a variety of open culture professionals.

    Members of Berlin’s Peng! Collective share their experiences using art and parody to provoke sociopolitical commentary. Photo by Meredith Holmgren
    Members of Berlin’s Peng! Collective share their experiences using art and parody to provoke sociopolitical commentary.
    Photo by Meredith Holmgren

    In the days that followed, open cultural heritage discussions continued to proliferate. Figuring prominently in these discussions was the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Galleries Libraries Archives and Museums (OpenGLAM) initiative. With a stated mission of “building a global cultural commons for everyone to use, access, and enjoy,” the OpenGLAM working group supported, organized, and/or participated in the bulk of open cultural heritage events. Specific cultural policy subjects, such as content licensing and the public domain, were major themes of these OpenGLAM sessions.

    Open copyright and licensing resources, such as Creative Commons’ Open Policy Network, OutOfCopyright.eu, PublicDomain.okfn.org, and CalculateurDomainePublic.fr, were heavily referenced throughout the festival. In the session “Let’s Bring the Public Domain Calculators Worldwide!” Pierre Chrzanowski, Marco Monatari, and Maarten Zeinstra led presentations about investigating and determining public domain works. As an area of considerable complexity, with diverse, complicated, and occasionally opaque laws sprawling across a variety of jurisdictions, determining public domain is a reoccurring challenge for many cultural heritage institutions. Though most initiatives are still in their infancy, the variety of online tools being developed to assist in “calculating” public domain status appear well positioned to become significant resources for culture professionals in the future.

    Another notable OpenGLAM session was “Maintaining a Healthy and Thriving Public Domain,“ in which representatives from Europeana, Kennisland, and the University of Amsterdam discussed “the notion of originality and copyright when digitizing analogue works.” While GLAMs have been driven to digitize their collections in recent years, the question of whether or not new rights are created when an analog work is digitized has been subject to debate. Although an original artwork may be in the public domain, documentary reproductions of that work may still be claimed by the stewarding institution. Each presenter discussed their professional experiences working with cultural heritage institutions to support the declaration of these assets as public domain works. A running archive of open collections may be referenced on the OpenGLAM website.

    The festival concluded with a closing session on accomplishments and impacts of the event, as well as live music by Juliani, Valsero, and The Swag. Photo by Meredith Holmgren
    The festival concluded with a closing session on accomplishments and impacts of the event, as well as live music by Juliani, Valsero, and The Swag.
    Photo by Meredith Holmgren

    Another noteworthy OpenGLAM session, “Getting Ready for the OpenGLAM Benchmark Survey,” discussed the ongoing efforts to collect survey data from cultural heritage institutions worldwide about digital content, openness, and accessibility. Modeled on a similar initiative in the Swiss national context, the OpenGLAM surveys are currently being prepared, translated, and distributed to representatives across the world who will manage their administration from the autumn of 2014 through the spring of 2015. Ultimately, the OpenGLAM group expects that this project will provide a wealth of comparative data from which a “state of the field” analysis may be conducted. A current rendering of country participants may be viewed here.

    It was refreshing to experience how seamlessly the OpenGLAM sessions integrated with other foci of OKFest, particularly the data storytelling and mapping workshops, academic and research sessions, as well as events supported by Artists Without A Cause and Making All Voices Count. I found that situating the OpenGLAM sessions within the broader context of civil society initiatives reinforced the notion that cultural heritage policy and practices are integral to the overarching principles of civic participation, cultural democracy, and innovation. A particular policy highlight of the conference was when keynote speaker Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission, announced that the EC will officially endorse the use of open licenses, such as those available via Creative Commons, as a best practice for government data.

    While the OpenGLAM principles may not be appropriate for all cultural contexts (e.g. some indigenous communities, living artists, etc.), the overall sentiment—that much of our cultural heritage, our cultural commons, and associated assets remain unjustly under copyright and inaccessible to the very publics that support their stewardship—is an urgent issue worthy of further attention. By fostering cooperation between cultural heritage institutions, legal specialists, and open culture professionals, the cultural heritage sessions at OKFest prompted stimulating and timely consideration of emerging issues in our digital age of cultural heritage policies and practices.

    Meredith Holmgren is the principal investigator and project manager of the pan-institutional project Intangible Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian. In addition to cultural policy research, she enjoys traveling and learning languages.


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