Interview with Pierre-Yves Desaive (the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)


The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, July 11, 2012

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, host a large collection of artworks, covering a time period that ranges from the 15th until the 21st century. The institution includes five museums: the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Museum of Ancient Art, the Magritte museum, the Constantin Meunier museum, and the Antoine Wiertz museum. The missions of the MRBAB-KMSKB include the conservation of the collections, conducting research projects, and organising exhibitions.

Rony Vissers of PACKED vzw (Brussels), the centre of expertise in digital heritage that is in charge of coordinating DCA, spoke with Pierre-Yves Desaive (head of the digital museum department at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium) about the progress of the DCA project in his institution.

Content
1. DCA and the digital museum of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
2. Internal digitisation management
3. The collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and the selection for DCA
4. Digitisation challenges
5. Some copyright issues
6. Collaboration with subcontractors (1)
7. Collaboration with subcontractors (2)
8. Being a work package leader in the DCA project
9. Overall management of the DCA project
10. Participation in European projects and Europeana
11. Google Art Project


1. DCA and the digital museum of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

PACKED: Could you tell us what the main reasons for the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium's participation in the DCA project are?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: There are several reasons. First, we consider it important to take part in an international project. Second, DCA it is a good opportunity for us to obtain the financial support necessary to digitise a large amount of works of art. Third, we have been keen to take part in Europeana for a long time already but had never really defined a strategy to do so. DCA is a good opportunity to start defining such a strategy.


PACKED: Why is it important for museum to participate in an international project, and more specifically in a European digitisation project?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: For many years we've been trying to build a department called the digital museum. Setting up a workflow and finding good practices for the digitisation of works of art is important for us. During the period that we created our online database, we also changed from analogue photography to digital photography for the creation of reproductions. This means that since 2001-2003 two activities have evolved side by side: creating databases and reflecting on best practices for the creation of databases for art history on one hand, and on the other defining best practices for the digitisation of works of art. Since we’ve been working on these two directions for many years, we wanted to get in touch on the international level with other institutions. This should allow us to compare our practice with those of other institutions and to exchange ideas.


PACKED: Can you explain how the DCA project will contribute to your online catalogue?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Our online catalogue is called Fabritius. Fabritius stands for Fine Arts Brussels Internet and Intranet Users. As I said earlier, people outside our institution use it through the Internet and people inside our institution through the intranet. Our goal is to have the entire collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium digitised and accessible within Fabritius.

DCA contributes to the online catalogue by adding new records. Before the start of DCA we had 7,800 records online, which is approximately 36% of our collection. DCA will add 1,700 records and thus bring the total to 9,500 records online, which is approximately 44% of our collection. This is a significant increase. It will take a long time before we can bring the entire collection online because many of the files of the ancient art collection are not ready to go online yet, in particular the large collection of ancient drawings. Luckily, after the end of DCA almost the complete collection of modern and contemporary art will be available online.

DCA allows us to create the record, to produce the digital image and of course to study the work and create or enrich the metadata: the techniques that were used, the iconography, …


PACKED: By linking digitisation to your online collection, your main digitisation purpose seems to be access. Do you also digitise for preservation purposes?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Indeed, when digitisation is linked to the online collection, the main purpose is access. We aim to give online access to the collection for people outside our museum. At the same time we also aim to give access to the collection for people working in our museum. Thus, digitisation also facilitates things like the administration and management of loans. We also try to develop new ways of digitising that are closely linked to questions of preservation, like for instance multispectral digitisation. The digital museum is on the one hand a public service that brings the collection to people, and on the other a research department that closely collaborates with the curating and restoration department.

DCA offers a really great opportunity to work on a very specific part of our collection. As part of the project we mainly digitise works on paper. They are an important part of our collection. They represent a large proportion of works compared to paintings and sculptures for instance. This is true for both our contemporary and our ancient art collection.

The main reason for the digitisation of the works on paper is that we don’t have the means to display them - either ancient art or modern and contemporary art - because they require very specific exhibition conditions. It is very important to digitise the works on paper in order to be able to display them in a virtual online exhibition of a digital museum. In this specific case it is more a matter of access than of preservation. However, for research purposes access to the original works is not replaced by access to digital reproductions. If researchers come to study our collection of works on paper, they will always be given access to the originals. We will never give them a reproduction, even if these works are very fragile.


PACKED: Can you explain a bit more what digital museum means for the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: It all started with our online database. First, people spoke about virtual collections and virtual museums because the collections that were displayed online were not physical collections. I really wanted to use the term digital museum because it has a broader meaning. At the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium the digital museum deals with everything that has something to do with digitisation of works of art and access to digital reproductions, but it also deals with the public that gains access to the museum through the network. This means that my department also works for the website of the museum and the social media related to the museum. We are involved in everything that connects to the outside world through the network. As I said earlier, this has a side that is really public-oriented and a side that is more research-oriented.


2. Internal digitisation management

PACKED: How are digitisation projects in general managed within the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium? And how is the DCA project managed?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: The digital museum department manages both regular digitisation work and specific digitisation projects.

With regular digitisation work I mean that every week several works are digitised, either because a museum department – the modern art, or ancient art department – needs to have a specific work digitised, or because we have received a request from people outside the museum who need a reproduction of a specific work. Beside this regular digitisation work we also have specific digitisation projects. Very often our team initiates these projects: we come up with suggestions and try to find the financial means to make them possible. The digital museum department was the one that supported the idea to participate in the DCA project. We supported the invitation for participation and explained the DCA project to our general director. We were also the ones who came up with the idea to be part of the Google Art Project, and to support the multispectral digitisation and image watermarking projects.

The digital museum department comes up with the project idea and takes care of project management. We try to organise everything in order to digitise artworks on days that the museum is closed, on Monday for instance. We also organise meetings with the many people involved in digitisation: with the curators or course, but also with those in charge of moving the works from the depositories to the museum rooms and back.

The digital museum department has a rather small team compared to other museum departments. There are four of us: three art historians plus one person in charge of the digital photo library. I’m one of the three art historians. The person in charge of the photo library is also in charge of digitising artworks in collaboration with the photographer.


PACKED: DCA is 50% funded by the European Commission. What is the importance of European funding, even for a big museum like yours?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: It is important in terms of budget. It is really important because we have a budget to digitise on a daily basis but we don’t really have budget to create other projects, so a budget like DCA as I said before it also a good opportunity to define a strategy to be part of Europeana. Without that budget and without the people working on it we wouldn’t have the time to do it. We wouldn’t have the people to do it.


Digitising contemporary artworks on display at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium © MRBAB


3. The collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and the selection for DCA

PACKED: Can you tell us a little bit more about the collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: The collection of our museum contains approximately almost 2,2000 works. If you have a look at the catalogues of the collections, you will see that the modern and contemporary art collection is much bigger than the ancient art collection. Works on paper form the largest part within the collection of modern and contemporary art. We also have close to 4,000 paintings in the modern and contemporary art department; in the ancient art department we have only around 1,600 paintings. The large size of the modern and contemporary art collection is the reason why it is so important for us to participate in DCA. The project offers a good opportunity to work on that collection.

Our collection contains a broad range of fine art: paintings, sculptures, works on paper, installations, photographs, and even some videos. We don’t have many videos, but we do have some works on DVD. We also have some decorative art because these were part of big loans that were made in the 1970s and 1980s. So, we do have furniture and glass works on display but they are not part of the core of our museum. However, we do need to preserve them because they were given to us.


PACKED: What is the selection that you have made for digitisation within the framework of DCA?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: As I said earlier the selection mainly consists of work on paper, but also some paintings and sculptures. These works on paper can be drawings and prints, but we have also selected some posters. We have a large collection of posters from the 1960s and 1970s that are really important for the history of art in Belgium. Those of the 1960s, for instance, were created by people like Julian Key. He is an important figure within the history of advertising, not only in Belgium but also internationally. Before DCA we never really had a chance to work on this poster collection. The museum will benefit from the digitisation of the posters. Until now they were not on display. Thanks to DCA we will soon have a selection available for public display in one of the museum rooms. My department has insisted on the fact that these posters form an important part of the collection. So our work on DCA has been a good influence.


PACKED: What do you consider to be the most important works within this DCA selection? Can you give some examples?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: We made a selection at the very beginning of the DCA project. The list contains some famous names from the history of modern and contemporary art, both Belgian and international artists, like for instance: Hans Arp, Francis Bacon, Paul Delvaux, Lucio Fontana, Ellsworth Kelly, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy.

From the museum’s point of view all works are important because they need to be preserved. For us it is not only a matter of important names. All works are important for the sole reason that they are part of our collection – although some artists are more famous than others.

Artists like Pierre Alechinsky and Paul Delvaux belong to the group of famous artists. Everybody knows them. What is more interesting than the fact that some of the works are made by Alechinsky or Delvaux, is the selection of their works that we digitise and plan to make available. We have many pieces by Paul Delvaux. People know his paintings, but very often not his works on paper. If you visit an exhibition of a famous artist like Paul Delvaux or Pablo Picasso, the works on paper are unfortunately usually considered less important because the public wants to see their paintings. Within DCA we will digitise some sketches by Paul Delvaux, as although these works are less known they are very important because they help us understand his better known works, for instance his paintings. Maybe these works are less important for exhibitions, but they are very important from an art-historical point of view.


4. Digitisation challenges

PACKED: Do the works on paper create special challenges for digitisation? If so, what are these challenges?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Working with works on paper is a challenge in itself. Such works are very fragile because they were made using special techniques, like charcoal drawing for instance. You cannot touch them. Since they are uneven it is very difficult to obtain a good picture of them. You cannot scan them because they are too fragile. You can also not put a window on them because it will damage the work. Works on paper are often not easy to manipulate because their format can vary greatly: you can have very small drawings, but you can also have very large ones. Framing can create another challenge, because it takes time and skill to frame the work before digitisation. We also have specific problems with the posters; they can be very big if they were designed to be in public spaces, for instance, and are often kept folded. It is very difficult to unfold them and digitise them in one piece. We need to digitise them in several parts.


PACKED: I guess that paintings and sculptures can also cause a list of problems because they can be big or heavy, and are often stored in a warehouse…

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Indeed, these are big problems. The main problem with these larger works is that we don’t have the space in the storage room to digitise them. We need to take them out, and this is even further complicated by the fact that we don’t have enough space at the moment.

We are also facing an additional difficulty. When we started the DCA project, we did not know that our Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art was going to close down in order to be replaced by a 19th Century Art Museum. This change means that many works are now no longer in the museum rooms but in the depositories. All of a sudden it has become very difficult to organise planning because of such storage. For large sculptures and installations, it sometimes takes a full day to take them out of the storage room and another day to work on them and to digitise them.

Luckily all storage rooms here are on the premises of the museum. There are many of them now, and sometimes it’s very difficult to gain access to them because the new 19th Century Art Museum is being constructed. It’s very difficult to get past the construction work, gain access to the storage rooms and digitise the works.

These are internal problem, but they have caused many delays to our planning. They have even forced us to reorganise our schedule.


PACKED: The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium is one of the few partners within the DCA consortium with both a historical and a modern and contemporary collection. Is there a difference between the digitisation of ancient works of art and the digitisation of contemporary works of art?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: In contemporary art you deal with a larger spectrum of techniques and materials. If it is a painting, the digitisation of 16th century painting and a 20th century painting can be very similar. Things get more complex with, for instance, installations. You need will to choose one or several angles to take the photographs. The space and the materials become more important.


Digitising contemporary artworks on display at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium © MRBAB


5. Some copyright issues

PACKED: What about the copyright situation?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: The copyright situation is different for ancient works of art and contemporary works of art when it comes to online access. For the contemporary works of art we need to clear the copyright before anything can go online. This is a big task. It needs to be done within the framework of the DCA project.

We have already identified those artists who are members of a collective rights management organisation and those who aren't. For the works of artist members we will have to negotiate a license agreement with their collective rights management organisations, for those artists who aren't members we will have to get the permission from the artists themselves or their heirs.

We will have to develop a broader discussion with collective rights management organisations than previously. We already pay license fees to them. The more artworks we have online, the bigger the licensing costs. We also know that many artists, of whom we have works in our collections, are not members of a collective rights organisation.

Copyright clearance is an interesting part of the DCA project. It forces us to define a long-term strategy for dealing with copyrights. We have made a proposal to the modern and contemporary art department for our institution to create a model license form. This form could be used when we purchase a work for our collections. It would help us to negotiate a license agreement directly with the artists, their heirs or other copyright holders at the moment of purchase without having to pay additional license fees. We believe that such a license agreement should be possible for the display of the works in an online catalogue because it has no commercial purpose. It’s necessary for us to define our own strategy and stop automatically following that of collective rights management organisations as we have done until now.


PACKED: This is a strategy for works that you are acquiring now or will do in the future, while the works that you digitise within the framework of DCA have already been acquired in the past. This means that for DCA the copyrights will have to be cleared retroactively. Can you explain how you approach copyright issues within the framework of DCA?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: First, we checked which are the artists whose works we are digitising within the framework of the DCA project. Some of them are members of a collective rights management organisation, others are not. For member artists we clear the copyright with the collective rights management organisation, for the works of artists who are not members, with their heirs or representatives. Tracking and contacting the individual artists, heirs or their representatives is a very time-consuming, and thus costly job.

Luckily, we have a lot of information in database records of the works themselves. This makes it easier for us to know, for instance, where and when the work was purchased. Contacting the artist or gallery from whom we have purchased the work is the first thing that we do. Unfortunately, they move a lot but at least we always have some information to start from. Tracking rightholders is not an easy job. In some cases it will even be impossible to find rightholders and clear copyrights. However, since these artists are not members of collective rights management organisations, we can only hope that online display won’t cause problems. We only display the works online for non-commercial purposes.


PACKED: Can you describe the different steps of your ‘diligent search’ a little more?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: The first thing we do is to contact the collective rights management organisations to find out whether the artist is a member or not. This is not always an easy task because collective rights management organisations do not always provide user-friendly lists of their own members. Sometimes we need to compare several lists. Such lists are not online available and the organisations don’t send them. We have already had to actually go to the offices of collective rights management organisations in order to compare our artist list with their membership lists.

If we don’t find any trace of the artist in the membership lists of the collective rights management organisations, we check our database record to find out where the work was purchased and how. Subsequently, we try to get in touch with the people from whom we have purchased the work. We hope that they can help us get in contact with the artist, his/her heirs or their representatives. Unfortunately, sometimes the art gallery no longer exists. When we have acquired the work from a private collector, as a gift or purchase, the situation might be more complicated because it is possible that the person in question was never in direct contact with the artist. Luckily, the Internet makes this job a little bit easier than it would have been twenty years ago.

We keep files of all our tracking activities: the emails that we’ve sent, the phone calls that we’ve made, … We do so in order to be able to prove that we have done our best to find the rightholders. Some of them we never find or are able to get in touch with.


PACKED: If you can’t get in touch with the rightholders, do you publish the works online with a disclaimer in which you ask rightholders to contact the museum?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Indeed, that’s our plan but we do not yet know what the content of the disclaimer will exactly be and how we will put it on our website.


6. Collaboration with subcontractors (1)

PACKED: Can tell us a bit about your collaboration with subcontractors within the framework of DCA?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: We have subcontracted a photographer to work on the DCA project. He also works for us on the digitisation of pieces from our collections that are not part of the DCA selection. He is our main photographer, so he works a lot for us. He only works on one part of the DCA selection. He is not working on the digitisation of the posters but only on the digitisation of the paintings, sculptures and other works on paper. A subcontractor specialised in handling big formats will photograph the posters.

It has always been the policy the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium to work with a subcontractor for everything that is related to photography, originally using analogue photography and over the last couple of years, using digital photography. For the DCA project we didn’t have a choice because we don’t have anybody available in-house who can do the repro photography. We have strictly followed our institution’s policy for the DCA project. We have already been working for many years with an external photographer. We have a framework contract with him.

Another subcontractor takes care of the poster digitisation. When we started our participation in the DCA project and estimated the budget, we didn’t have the time to think about what we wanted to do with the posters because we had never dealt with this part of our collections. We knew what was in the poster collection because we have the index card files, but we didn’t know what the posters looked like. When we discovered what they look like, we realised how difficult it would be to work with them and to scan them internally. Some of them had been kept folded since the 1960s, other were kept in rolls and never displayed, others were framed. We have tried to find a solution with the group of the ten federal scientific institutions of which we are a part. We contacted the Royal Library of Belgium because we knew that they have many scanners, and went to see their equipment. It turned out that they would not be able to do the job. There were several reasons for this. First, it would be very difficult to combine their work for us with their own digitisation activities. This would force us to follow a very strict working schedule, and would be too difficult for us. The digitisation of posters is very complicated and time-consuming. Some posters would also be too big for their equipment. We decided to look for another subcontractor and we had to make minor changes in the budget.


PACKED: Had you previously collaborated with the subcontractor who will digitise the posters?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: This subcontractor for the poster digitisation is new.

It is important to mention here that the works that are part of our collections normally never leave the museum for digitisation. They also normally never leave the museum for restoration. Everything is done in-house. When we decided to work with a subcontractor for the digitisation of the posters, there were two options: asking the subcontractor to digitise the posters on the premises of the museum, or asking for special permission to let the posters leave the museum for digitisation. The curator who is responsible for the poster collection agreed that it would be too much work and too costly for a subcontractor to set up his/her equipment in the museum and to work here for two or three weeks. She agreed that the posters could leave the institution for digitisation. This was a very good decision.

We’ve done a lot of research to find a company that would be able to perform the job. We also had several meetings with different companies. A deciding factor was the expertise of the subcontractor in working with fine art collections. Some of the companies had only worked, for instance, with newspapers. We wanted to be sure that we would be working with people who know how to deal with works of art, even though the posters of course don’t have the same status as, e.g., paintings and sculptures. Still, they are fragile and part of the museum collection. We need to take care of them; just as well as we take care of paintings and sculptures.


Johan Geleyns (Roscan) working on the digitisation of contemporary artworks at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium © MRBAB


7. Collaboration with subcontractors (2)

PACKED: For the European Commission the ‘best value for money’ is a deciding factor in the choice of subcontractor. However, for a heritage institution there is more than just the best reproduction quality for the cheapest price. Trust also seems to be an important deciding factor.

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Indeed, our subcontractor has a strong expertise in working with, e.g., ancient maps, things that are very fragile. We do trust the company, but we will also be there when the posters get digitised anyway. We will be involved in the process.

This also means that there is not a very broad choice of possible subcontractors. You need to find people who have a strong expertise in a very specific field.


PACKED: Can you tell us something more about the working relationship with your main photographer?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: We have already worked for many years with our main photographer. We had already worked with him before we launched an open tender for a long-term collaboration with a photographer. For one reason or another those responsible for the selection of the subcontractor decided to work with another photographer than the current one. We worked together with this other photographer for one year and the result was quite problematic. It forced us to cancel the contract. We started working again with the photographer that we had previously collaborated without any trouble. We know his work very well. He’s passionate about art. He’s really specialised in the digitisation of works of art. It is the only thing he does. This is very important because it allows us to trust him.


PACKED: Do you see any disadvantages in working with a subcontractor?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Working with a subcontractor has some disadvantages from a practical point of view. I would much rather have an in-house photographer. I even think that an institution like ours should have one, because every time we need to digitise a work of art we need to make an appointment. Our subcontracted photographer is paid on a daily basis. We need to take good advantage of that day. We can’t afford to let him come for the digitisation of one work. In one day he will need to digitise, for example, forty works on paper or twenty-five paintings. This requires a lot of preparation. Working with a subcontractor is less flexible.

Within the framework of DCA we have made an agenda for one year to make sure that everybody is available when they are needed. This is very complicated. By ‘everybody’ I mean the photographer and all the museum staff: the curators, the people in charge of moving the works from the storage rooms, my collaborator who needs to accompany the photographer on the day he visits the museum … What also makes planning very complex is the fact that we sometimes are not sure whether the work will be there. If we plan the digitisation of a certain work on a certain day, six months in advance, it might happen that on that particular day it turns out that the work has been moved to another place or has been loaned to an exhibition. Sometimes it’s very hard to plan long in advance. I don’t think that we would have the same problems if we worked with an in-house photographer. The DCA project opened our eyes as to the importance of having an in-house team for the digitisation of artworks.


8. Being a work package leader in the DCA project

PACKED: Can you tell us something about your work as work package leader within DCA?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: We are the leader of Work package 4: Digitisation (supervision).

Being a work package leader means a lot of extra work for us. We are both content partner and work package leader. Being a content partner is already a lot of work: one needs to organise the digitisation of the artworks, solve the copyright issues, create and/or enrich the catalogue records, prepare the aggregation and ingest of data into Europeana, … Being a work package leader means in our case that we suggest digitisation solutions that we think are best to other content partners. We are aware that there is a chance that not all partners will be able to follow everything that we consider as good practice, but the most important thing that we can do is define best practices. Being a work package leader is being one who takes decisions within the consortium, but it also means others waiting for you to come up with answers to their questions. At the same time, as work package leader, we also get feedback from other consortium partners, which in some cases helps us to further redefine our own strategy.


PACKED: Can you give an example of how things work in both directions?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: We are responsible for two deliverables: D4.1 Digitisation workflow description for digitising the selected artworks and D4.2 Guidelines for an A-Z digitisation workflow for contemporary art works. The first one was based on our experience in the museum, mainly on how we’ve been working with our photographer. His methodology works very well for us, but we are aware that our approach is very specific. Within the consortium there has been some discussion about our approach and the methodology of our photographer. There were two main issues. The first issue was the equipment our photographer uses: very expensive and very specific equipment. We cannot expect that all content partners invest in purchasing this kind of equipment. Such equipment is also useless if you don’t have the person who has the know-how and skills to operate it. The second issue was the fact that the entire workflow that we’ve defined in collaboration with our photographer over the last five years is based on the idea that at the end the digital picture will be printed using offset printing technology. Our first goal is not to have nice pictures online, but to assure a high quality printing of the images in, e.g., printed catalogues. This requires the use of different colour profiles. There was some discussion about it. For us this was interesting because it forced us to look at our methodology in a different way and to compare it to what other people think and do.


PACKED: Can you give some examples of the kind of requests you, as the leader of work package, get from the other content partners for additional information or assistance?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: At the beginning we got some questions regarding photographic equipment. We had first described the type of equipment that we had been using in our institution for the digitisation of artworks. As a result of the many questions we received about this, we also asked our photographer to make an overview of the minimal requirement for photographic equipment. We provided the partners who asked for additional information with technical solutions, told them that if they planned to buy equipment they should best check for this and that type. Our goal was to convince them to use equipment that would produce high-quality image files.

Next we received some questions about the files themselves: about the quality of the files, the naming of the files, the colour profiles, … This became more and more specific as people started to work on their collection. As soon as the digitisation workflow was available, questions arose that they had never thought of before. Maybe they had been digitising artworks before, but some of them had, for example, no clue what a colour profile is when they started reading the digitisation workflow. Some content partners realised that they needed more information about what they were doing.


PACKED: What about your relationship to the other work package leaders?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: A great benefit for us of being part of the DCA project is being able to get assistance from the different work packages. One of the things we learn from other work package leaders and content partners are the things that are related to media art for instance. As I have mentioned before, we do have some video works but we don’t have any expertise into the digitisation of these works. When we had to design a digitisation workflow for all partners, including those with a media art collection, we needed help from the institutions who have more expertise in this field.

The work packages on metadata, aggregation and digital long-term preservation are very important for us. We are a work package leader for digitisation, but we don’t have any experience in aggregation or ingest to Europeana. We do receive a lot of information from the DCA consortium that will be useful for our institution in the future. If we decided, for example, to transfer our collection from one database to another, we now know what to do and what steps to follow. After ten years creating digital reproductions, first by scanning ektachrome slides and later through digital photography, we urgently have to develop a new strategy for long-term digital preservation. We do have one, but it needs to be reviewed completely. We hope that the leader of the work package on digital long-term preservation will provide us with useful information.


Digitising contemporary artworks on display at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium © MRBAB


9. Overall management of the DCA project

PACKED: What’s your opinion on overall project management?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: I think that it works quite well because many people involved in project management have a lot of experience working on this type of project. That’s very useful.


PACKED: Do you have any suggestions on how to improve the overall project management?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: I think that it’s the role of the project management team to put pressure on the different partners who are members of the project consortium. DCA is a big project and a complicated one, with many people involved. It is necessary that the project management keeps an eye on the time schedule and reminds everybody of the different deadlines but the project management team should also take into account that people like us often do also have other tasks and responsibilities in the institution that are related to DCA.

I think that the project management team does well in setting deadlines and making sure that people actually stick to them; and sometimes it’s just difficult. If we fail to meet internal deadlines at times, it is not because we don’t want to respect them. It’s just because some of us are also involved in other projects. At times, some of us have to set our work on DCA on hold briefly. I can completely understand that the project management team does not have to accept this, but sometimes reality catches up. The DCA project management team only needs to look at what’s being done in DCA, but sometimes our tasks and responsibilities in DCA interfere with others. I can imagine that this makes it difficult to make twenty-four partners stick to a tight time schedule. The project can only work well if everybody sticks to the same schedule. In our case, things would be a little bit easier if we had more experience in working in such a big and complex international project. This is the first time that we are involved in such a project. When we confirmed our participation, we didn’t fully realise that it requires such a large amount of time.

An improvement in the project management could be that, if there were a sequel project or new project, the project management team might explain more elaborately from the beginning or even before the project starts what it means to participate in such a project and how much time it might require.


PACKED: It’s difficult for us too, because it depends from one project to another and from one partner to another. It is often difficult to estimate the capabilities of new partners in advance with precision. I think that the project management team tries to be as flexible as possible. It is also not so much for us that you have to do stick to the deadlines, but for yourself.

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Indeed, it’s your work to put pressure on us and I personally don’t see another way of doing it. As a first time partner, we are well guided by those with more experience in this kind of European project.

I think that it is important to document the DCA project as well as possible. After its completion we should try to maintain a DCA archive. The interview that you are doing right now can be helpful for this purpose too. This DCA archive should help future projects. If one starts a new project, it is helpful to know how similar projects have been organised, who was involved in it and to share their knowledge. I, as a DCA work package leader, could, for example, explain to partners of future projects what my experience has been: both the good and the bad points. This would help to make sure these people understand what they are going to face in the next thirty months.


PACKED: Do you mean a system of knowledge management?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Indeed, such kind of knowledge management would be interesting. Compare the situation with that in a big institution like ours, when someone who has been working there for thirty years leaves.

There are two different points. First, there are the best practices related to, e.g., digital digitisation and long-term preservation. This can be archived in a structured way, like in a wiki. Alongside this there is also the way that we work on a daily basis and the kind of problems that we face while doing our work. This is also worth archiving, and it can best be done without a pre-defined fixed structure. The interviews that you do are important for this.


10. Participation in European projects and Europeana

PACKED: How important is the participation in international projects or networks for your institution?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Everything we do basically involves some kind of international collaboration: when we organise an exhibition we receive loans from foreign institutions, or we loan works to foreign institutions. We are always in touch with other museums on an international level. Research projects also have an international aspect. We do have foreign researchers in our museum for; e.g., one or two years. Earlier I mentioned the research on multispectral digitisation; we collaborate on this with a French company. There are many ways to collaborate on an international level, but a project like DCA is on another level. DCA is like the creation of a network. Like most other museums, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are part of international networks but none of the networks is equivalent to the DCA project.


PACKED: Is a network like the DCA network something that you would like to see continue?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Definitely, DCA is a great way to get in touch with museums that we otherwise would never contact. One of the benefits of DCA is the fact that it allows us to get in touch with smaller institutions that we never contact because their core business is different than ours. Getting in touch with them is very important. Besides working together on the digitisation of the DCA selection, it is very interesting for us to see how all these different institutions function, what their collection is, etc. If we had a chance again to participate in a project like DCA, I would definitely go for it - knowing now what it really means in terms of time, energy, people and so on.


PACKED: You will be making some content available through Europeana for the first time. Is this a one-time event or do you already have some further plans?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: I’m not sure yet. The decision will depend on the museum policy of our general director for the coming years. I don’t have enough information yet. There are many changes expected, so I think it’s too early to really know.


PACKED: What do you consider to be the possible advantages or disadvantages of Europeana for an institution like yours?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: I think that it’s really important to be part of a network, and when you are part of Europeana you are in direct contact with many institutions across Europe. This is a great advantage. It gives institutions like ours more visibility on a European level, not only by have data available in Europeana but also by being part of the Europeana family.

A disadvantage could be that Europeana holds a lot of information and sometimes you get lost in this. It does not only hold information about collections from museums, but also from libraries, archives, audio-visual archives and other heritage organisations. Our specificity as a museum might get lost a bit within the context of Europeana.


11. Google Art Project

PACKED: At the beginning of our talk you mentioned your participation in the Google Art Project, another digitisation project. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: There is a big difference between on the one hand our involvement in DCA and subsequently Europeana, and on the other our involvement in the Google Art Project because we only share a very small amount of works with the Google Art Project. With Europeana we share more contemporary works which requires that we clear the copyrights before we give online access to the reproductions, whereas those that we share with Google Art are 19th century pieces or works of ancient art and do not have copyright issues.

There are for example no works by Pablo Picasso available in the Google Art Project. Even the Museum of Modern Art in New York didn’t give access to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This gives you an idea of the problem. If such a big institution doesn’t do it, there are many major copyright issues. Google won’t solve these issues. They are aware of the problem. They know that if the Google Art Project grows, it will do so in a direction in which modern and contemporary art has less visibility.

Europeana has a similar problem, although I consider it different giving access to your collection through something like Europeana than a commercial company like Google. People will not understand and will not agree on the fact that we need to bear the license fee costs to give Google access to our collection. That is exactly what would happen. If I want to put a work by Picasso in the Google Art Project they will happily accept, but I will be the one who has to cover the license fee. Considering the fact that Google is a commercial company that aims to make profit, I find this an ethical problem.


PACKED: But then why do the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium participate in the Google Art Project?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: We participate in the Google Art Project because I think that it gives very good visibility to our institution. Their interface is really good; people are fascinated by the details that they can see in the paintings. We cannot compete with Google in the field of offering user-friendly interfaces that allow people to zoom in on the details.

There is some kind of a connection with our work in the DCA project because participation in the Google Art Project required digitisation of the works in a very high resolution. We had to discuss this with them and with our photographer. A team from Google digitised one of our works in very high definition. It was interesting for us to see how they do it.

When we announced our participation in the Google Art Project, the press picked it up very fast. It gave our museum a lot of exposure. This is very important for my team because it makes people realise that in an institution like ours there is a small department that we call the digital museum that works on such projects.


PACKED: It is interesting that you mention visibility as a reason for participating in the Google Art Project, because earlier in this talk you expressed your fear of losing part of your profile in Europeana.

Pierre-Yves Desaive: The main difference is that we are the only Belgian museum that is present in the Google Art Project. If you search by location or if you want to know which Belgian museums are part of the Google Art Project, you will find us. The fact that we are the only Belgian one gives us very strong visibility. Moreover, even on an international level there are only a very small number of institutions involved in the Google Art Project. Something like 150, I think. What increases our visibility in the Google Art Project is that we have given them some works that are important, which we know people will search for – like Breughel for instance. There is one in the Metropolitan Museum in New York that has been digitised in very high quality and then there is ours. This means that we are on the same level as the Metropolitan Museum…

We are aware that Google is a commercial enterprise, and they mainly want to get press coverage about Google, but our participation benefits us too. Maybe we will add some more works to the Google Art Project in the future, but it will never become ‘the’ website for visiting our collection. We just think that it’s nice to be part of it because everybody knows Google just as everybody knows Picasso. If you mention that you are part of a big Google project, it gives you visibility.


PACKED: Do you see an advantage for Europeana if you were to compare it with the Google Art Project?

Pierre-Yves Desaive: For me Europeana is a research tool. You go to Europeana to search on a specific topic. You go to Google to see nice images of works that you like, or to create your own small museum.


PACKED: You stress the importance of Europeana as a portal, but if you look at the strategic plans of Europeana the importance of the portal will become lesser. What it wants to become is a platform where the data is also available for other users.

Pierre-Yves Desaive: Maybe the information will spread. Then you will get even more visibility because it will spread to Wikipedia and others. In Google Art Project the data remains in the Google Art Project.


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