Multimedia: Cultural Heritage Institutions

Another source of great quality content are cultural heritage institutions. There are many benefits to using content made available by cultural heritage institutions.

  • Quality: the content that cultural heritage institutions provide tends to be of very high quality, particularly when it comes to reproductions of artworks and archival material.
  • Reliability: cultural heritage institutions have workflows and processes in place for doing proper copyright clearance. This means that, when possible, they only make available content that they know for sure is free of all copyrights, or they indicate otherwise if the content is not freely available.
  • Cultural relevance: many cultural heritage institutions provide content that is relevant for the region, jurisdiction or country where they are based at. While this doesn’t mean that their content is not biased in some way, they tend to provide more culturally relevant content. 

Cultural heritage institutions take different approaches to how they provide content. Some offer their content through their website, through an aggregator 1, and on third-party platforms like Wikimedia Commons. But others only choose to offer their content on their website; others will only use aggregators; and others will only use third-party platforms like Wikimedia Commons or Flickr Commons. Approaches will vary, as well as in some cases their licensing practices.

Caveat: The reader might find this section biased towards North American, European or otherwise Western cultural heritage institutions. Collecting practices of cultural heritage institutions are heavily tinted by colonialist practices. Some of these institutions have “world class collections” by virtue of colonization and other similar practices. Their wealth of resources and knowledge has allowed them to enter speedily into the digital era, while the rest of the world is still unable to participate in a foot of equity. When possible, cultural heritage institutions from other parts of the world are signaled, but the copyright status of the resources being offered by these institutions is way less clear and reliable than the ones being highlighted.

1 Aggregators are websites that harvest or receive content from affiliated providing institutions, making it easier to search in one place for all the information. 


Cultural heritage institutions worldwide

Knowing which institutions have decided to release their digital reproductions of work around the world can be very challenging. Luckily, the Collections Manager of Europeana, Douglas McCarthy, and Dr. Andrea Wallace, Lecturer in Law at University of Exeter, have been maintaining a spreadsheet on “Survey of GLAM Open Access Policy and Practice” (GLAM means “Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums''). While the goal of the survey is to track policies, it also provides useful links that allow to discover the media repositories of these institutions.


Caption: this is a screenshot of the survey.

 At the time of this writing (November 2020), “Column R” offers the data “OPEN DATA SOURCE 1”. That’s the link where most of those media files can be accessed. Using the sorting functionalities of the Google spreadsheet, anyone can search, for example, all the cultural heritage institutions from COUNTRY (column A)  that have as OPEN DATA SOURCE 1 (column R) “”. 

 Importantly enough, this survey only tracks institutions that make their digital reproductions available under CC BY, CC BY-SA, Public Domain Mark, CC0 or No Known Copyright (a label by the RightsStatements consortium). Currently “Column K” offers the data “LICENCE/RIGHTS STATEMENT FOR DIGITAL SURROGATES OF PUBLIC DOMAIN OBJECTS”. In case of doubts on the scope of the policies being captured in the survey, you can read Douglas McCarthy summary of the survey in “Uncovering the global picture of Open GLAM”. 

 This survey is not a repository. Is only pointing to the repositories of institutions (currently in Column R). However, it tends to be a very good discovery tool if you want to understand where you can find the resources being made available by some of these cultural heritage institutions.


Aggregator: Europeana

Europeana is the aggregator of all the cultural heritage institutions from Europe. Europeana collects material with a “Publishing framework” that ranks institutions that openly license their content better than the ones that don’t, so whenever you are making a search, you are likely to get first the multimedia content that you can freely reuse. 

 However, this means that not all content you find in Europeana can be re-used. For that reason, Europeana has put together a set of search filters that allow you to search only for material that you can reuse. They explain more on their policies in this FAQ about Reusability. This is a very short FAQ that you can keep handy whenever you have doubts about reuse conditions.

 Using search filters on Europeana

 Europeana also holds different types of media, from images to drawings to videos and sounds, and much more. For that, they offer different search filters.

  1. Go to 
  2. On the top right corner, you will find the magnifying glass that symbolizes the search function.
  3. Type your keywords.
  4. That will give you the first search results. Then you can apply the different search filters using the dropdown menus:
    1. Collection
    2. Type of media
    3. Can I use this?
    4. Providing country
    5. More filters 


Caption: this GIF shows how to apply search filters on Europeana.



Caption: Using the search filters on Europeana. 


How to attribute easily using Europeana

Once you have selected a resource that you like, you will find lots of relevant information in the resource. 

Take a look at this picture from the Wellcome Collection of a “Mouse health check”, taken by Caroline Gunn.


After the picture, you will find: 

  • the information about the license;
  • download & share buttons;
  • a tab that says “Good to know” with the very basic information and then “All metadata”, that provides you more details about the photo you are looking at. 

 With the information that the “All metadata” tab provides, you could already put together your TASL attribution. “Mouse health check by Caroline Gunn is under a CC BY 4.0”.

However, there is even an easier way to do that. In the line of “Providing institution”, you can see that it says “Wellcome collection” and then has an arrow to indicate that if you click there, it will take you to an external site, different from Europeana. This is the source of that image. If you click there, it will take you to the page where Wellcome Collection is providing the original file. And if you expand the “Can I use this?” button, at the end it will automatically provide you the credit line:


Caption: Wellcome (original source) provides the credit line.

The only thing that you will need to add is the link to the original file in the Wellcome Collection website. Additionally, it is also good practice that you credit the cultural heritage institution that is providing the resource.

 Bear in mind that not all the providing institutions will have this readily available, but most of them will. If you can’t find this credit line easily in the source file, you can still put together your TASL information by checking on the “All the metadata” tab.

 Navigating through Europeana’s digital exhibitions

At the bottom of the main page of Europeana, you will find that there is some featured content.



Aggregator: DPLA

The Digital Public Library of America is an aggregator of US cultural heritage organizations. It has over 40 million items to browse, although not all of them are re-usable. DPLA currently does not have a search filter option that allows you to filter by type of license, which means that you need to click manually on each digital object to find out whether you can re-use it or not.

On the bright side, it does have some features that allow you to browse by topic, by partner institution, or discover content through their exhibitions curated collections. Their advanced search options do offer some interesting search filters to narrow down the search. You only need to click on the “plus” sign to expand the options that the search tool offers you:


Caption: These are the options that the advanced search filter offers visitors to narrow down results.

 Again, be very careful because not all the digital objects at DPLA are reusable. Search for the right status of the objects in their individual entry to find out if you can reuse them or not.


Other aggregators & featured cultural heritage institutions

Europeana and DPLA were probably the first aggregators to see the light, but there are many others, since aggregators offer a wide range of benefits to both users and cultural heritage institutions.

 It would take a significant amount of time to review all the search functionalities that every aggregator offers. However, we do want to point out to some other aggregators that you might want to dig into:

  • Trove brings together a range of digital content coming from libraries, archives and museums of Australia.
  • Digital New Zealand offers over 30 million items from more than 300 hundred institutions of New Zealand, offering not only content from cultural heritage institutions but also content coming from government departments, the media, community groups, and others.
  • Mexicana is the aggregator of cultural heritage institutions from Mexico, offering a variety of digital collections and historical documents from the country. 
  • National Digital Library of India allows search through over 50 million resources coming from different knowledge communities in India.
  • Tainacan is actually a software platform by the IBRAM (Brazilian Institute of Museums), but several institutions listed under the use cases page are offering their content online.

Caveat: some of these aggregators offer some openly licensed content, so you need to make sure that you are following the copyright information in the description of the item or abiding by the terms of use of the website. In case of doubt about the copyright status of the objects, avoid using them.

Additionally, there are some cultural heritage institutions that need to be highlighted. These already appear in the “Survey of Open Access Policy and Practice” by Douglas McCarthy and Dr. Andrea Wallace mentioned above, but they deserve a special mention as places to search for multimedia content since they offer very high-quality and reusable multimedia content.

  • The Open Access Initiative at the Smithsonian Institution offers +2.8 million items freely accessible and in most cases reusable. Make sure you check the rights field to understand whether you can reuse the digital reproductions or not.
  • The Collections online search interface by the Auckland War Memorial Museum from New Zealand has an impressive amount of digital items in high quality content. In this case, be aware that some of the content might also not be reusable in respect of traditional cultural expressions by the Indigenous people from the Pacific area.
  • Te Papa is also an institution from New Zealand that offers an amazing set of content.
  • Qatar Digital Library covers modern history and culture of the Gulf and wider Arab region.
  • The Rijksmuseum is a cultural heritage organization from the Netherlands and one of the first ones to adopt open licenses. They have a lot of content, from artworks to other types of works and content. 
  • The National Library of Spain changed their licensing policy this year, offering a lot of high quality content, including manuscripts, as public domain. 
  • The Nationalmuseum of Sweden has lots of interesting content and friendly search interfaces.

Other good cultural heritage institutions you could look for content are The Metropolitan Museum of Art & the Cleveland Museum of Art.