What is the value of an image?

Visual Content Consultant, Andrea Stern explores how museums might better understand, evaluate and protect their collection images.

Our cultural institutions house and care for remarkable collections and are the potential owners of some of the finest and most unique images. Digital collections have a value of their own which needs to be recognised by the sector for the potential market reach and income they can provide, if they are understood and managed appropriately.

In the commercial image world their value is already appreciated. Specialist and general picture libraries are seeking to represent this content because of its originality. Over the past 20 years commercial image agencies have sought out heritage content and incorporated it into a Getty or Bridgeman Images, for example. They often help to digitise content and make it more accessible. But what makes these images truly of value is the knowledge and expertise of the curators which provides the searchable metadata. However, financial returns
are being reduced and are now generally split 30/70, in an agency’s favour.

Five years ago, I set out to try and gather smaller museums together in the Gateway2Heritage, to minimise resources and costs required to digitise and market museum images commercially. The six core collections I worked with, Historic England, Beaford, MERL, RAF Hendon, Horniman and Black Cultural Archive had one thing in common, they wanted to realise the benefits of their collections both to attract attention to their institution and for financial sustainability. We wanted to create working hubs so that costs and skills could be shared; workflow simplified; have greater consistency; and collections be better understood by more people.

Funding to support the concept of commercial licensing however does not appear to exist. So we have unfortunately closed the Gateway, but the hope is still there.

‘Piemags’ founder Paul Fearn shares the idea that the world’s heritage sector does “outstanding work,” and aims to provide the sector with the best royalty split in the industry.” Starting with a 70/30 royalty split the platform seeks to offer a fairer share of the financial benefits.

But the sector must prioritise digitising the collections of all museums, and raise the priority of commercial content. To do this effectively and efficiently they need to form hubs and work together; funding should not be conditional on non-commercial usages; and images need to be recognised as valuable for their own sake, as are the objects they represent.

Click here to find out more about Piemags>>

Andrea has worked in the image industry for over 25 years, as a picture agency owner, ASAP Images; in the heritage sector as Head of V&A’s Images and Rights, and as an independent Visual Content Consultant.