Open Access - reckless or resourceful?

Feb 2019

Open Access - reckless or resourceful?

Amongst the cultural and heritage sector, the idea of open access has captivated many and sparked debate among academics, curators, commercial figures – just to name a few. With pros and cons being thrown about from each side of the debate, we thought who better to talk to than Wolfgang Wild to get his view on open access and the benefits and risks it can pose.

Visual Archive Curator Wolfgang Wild helps museums and archives maximise the impact of their visual archives by finding their most powerful material and then showcasing it to large audiences. Creator of Retronaut - ‘the past like you wouldn’t believe’ - described by the Financial Times as ‘hit records for archives’, Wild boasts an impressive 250k Facebook fans and was listed at No. 20 on The Times list of ‘The 50 People You Should Follow on Twitter’.


What is Open Access?

Simply put, open access is about allowing assets to be freely accessible, with very limited restrictions on their use. Open access has been a controversial topic, as for museums who may be cash-strapped, image licensing is a supplemental source of revenue.


Parallels with the Music Industry

Interesting, Wild compared the process of going open access to a similar trend that occurred in the music industry. With illegal downloads and copyright concerns over music, the solution was to create streaming sites that legally facilitated the widespread distribution of music for free – an adaption to the changing market. Now, artists on streaming sites are being presented with different revenue opportunities that they may have not experienced with traditional album sales. Different, additional opportunities increases the chance of exposure.

Wild argues that this process could have parallels with processes involved in open access in museums - can going open access provide more exposure and revenue than more traditional means, such as image licensing? But before we go ahead and panic over how museums will ever drive revenue or source crucial funding if they are supposedly giving everything away for free, Wild explains that we need to be reminded of the success streaming sites had in more detail…


More exposure equals more revenue opportunities?

Streaming music for free creates enormous exposure for the artists. Before, the primary way to gain exposure was to hope that a radio DJ would be willing to play your track or attempt to sign to a decent record label – both with great difficulty and huge competition. Wild notes that now artists all over the world, from all genres of music, and all languages reach audiences in a much faster, efficient and larger scale – the level of engagement has increased tenfold, especially for those who are more niche, or less well known, meaning they too have a chance for commercial success.

Well what about museums? Offering a platform for free content does not necessarily mean museums are carelessly surrendering their chances for revenue. In fact, Wolfgang notes that revenue from image sales is likely minimal when compared to the revenue generated from museum visits. In the majority of cases, it is the visitors who bring the value and revenue every time they step through the door – even in museums where general admission is free, as visitors spend money on attending special exhibitions, food and drink, the museum shop and donations. What’s even more important, is that they tell their friends and family about their visit, leave a review online or write about their trip on social media. But what drives people to visit museums in the first place?

For Wild, simply put – it’s engagement. The rise of social marketing and media use means that wide exposure can be generated with relative ease in a digital world, helping to very quickly drive engagement. By granting usage of a particularly beautiful image from the museum in a commercial campaign, allowing a visitor of the museum to use an image on social media to promote their recent trip, or providing free content to students to inspire more academic study, the museum facilitates more widespread engagement with their material - each digs out and finds a purpose for unique content that would otherwise may have been left untouched in the dark walls of the archive. But most importantly, it creates more opportunities and more reason for people to visit the museum for a variety of reasons, ranging from educational to recreational.

Every form of public use of the content drives more exposure and as a knock-on effect, potentially more revenue to the museum.


The risk

Wolfgang makes clear that despite the obvious benefits to revenue that open access could potentially bring, it isn’t to say that every museum that opts for open access will be a success story – which is why museums, archives and galleries are right to be cautious.

But for Wild, the key thing to remember with open access is that the risk does not lie with the organisation losing money from people using all this material that could have been licensed, but rather the risk that once you open up the archives that in fact no one will care - or bother to look what is there.

This is where Wolfgang stresses the importance of curation – a poorly curated collection could put a halt on potential influx of revenue and engagement that open access can bring. For Wolfgang’s advice on how any archive can achieve quality, outstanding curation, take a look at our previous article in collaboration with him.



For Wolfgang Wild, it is essentially about thinking differently towards change in the industry rather than resisting it. Open access is not necessarily a disaster set to rock the cultural and heritage sector – but rather a change we should view potentially as somewhat of a renaissance.

Ultimately the open access debate is about thinking of the most effective way to use archival material. Whilst for some this may be allowing free access to collections online, it cannot be done without specialist attention and curation. Open access and careful, considerate curation must go hand in hand for any viable successes to emerge.



Wolfgang works with Capture to help museums, galleries and archives bring their content to life. He has helped heritage organisations such as Northumberland Museums and Archives, Europeana, and Culture 24 increase their performance in terms of coverage, following and commercial results.

If you would like further information about anything in the article, or more information on working with Capture or Wolfgang Wild, please contact, or submit the form below, and we’d be delighted to chat in more detail.



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