The Paintings of 17th Century Dutch Masters – Now Available On Toilet Paper?

From the Smithsonian to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, more museums are now making their collections available online, but the recently renovated Rijksmuseum over in sunny (not) Amsterdam has shifted the paradigm a bit by offering downloads of high-resolution images at no cost for the public to copy and transform into stationery, T-shirts, tattoos, plates, or even toilet paper.

The Dutch national museum, which reopened this April after an extensive ten year renovation, holds masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Mondrian and van Gogh and has already made images of 125,000 of its works available through Rijksstudio, an interactive section of its Web site. The staff’s goal is to add 40,000 images a year until the entire collection of one million artworks spanning eight centuries is available.

Until recently, museums had been highly protective of good-quality digital versions of their artworks, making them available only upon request to members of the press or to art historians and scholars, with restrictions on how they could be used. The reasons are manifold: protecting copyrights, maintaining control over potentially lucrative museum revenues from posters or souvenirs and preventing thieves or forgers from making convincing copies.

In recent years, though, as the Google Art Project has begun to amass a global archive of images with the cooperation of museums, and the Internet has made it impossible to stem the tide of low-quality reproductions, institutions are rethinking their strategy.

The Rijksmuseum has been able to put its works online more quickly because much of its collection predates Dutch copyright laws and its staff had an opportunity to digitize the collection when museum was closed for renovations. (It reopened last month after a 10-year makeover.) The digitization project was financed by a million-euro ($1.29 million) grant from the national BankGiro lottery, which provides money for the arts and cultural groups.

To date, Rijksstudio has logged more than 2.17 million visitors since its service went online in October, and around 200,000 people have downloaded images. As a result, the Rijksmuseum won three international “Best of the Web” awards last month in Portland, Ore., at the annual international conference known as Museums and the Web. The prizes are based on peer evaluations by museum professionals.

To inspire users, the Rijksmuseum invited the Dutch design cooperative Droog to create products based on its artworks. Its designers used part of a 17th-century flower still life by Jan Davidsz de Heem as a template for a tattoo, for example; it used a 3-D printer to create a white plastic replica of an ornate 16th-century centerpiece designed by the German silversmith Wenzel Jamnitzer and to adorn it with magnetic miniatures of items from the Rijksmuseum’s collection. 

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