With the Phoebus project, staff at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Toulouse are making its photo collection available to Web users worldwide. Over 1,600 high-definition photos of objects from the municipal institution’s collections have already been freely licenced on Wikipedia.
Project launched in 2009
In 2009, the Muséum, the Institut Picot de La Pérouse, whose president, Didier Descouens, is a Wikipedia contributor, and Wikimedia launched the Phoebus project, a pioneer initiative in France. The project started with the prehistory and paleontology collections. It now extends to zoology (entomology, ornithology) and botany.
According to Wikipedia, “it consisted in mobilising Wikimedians to photograph objects of the non-permanent collections of the Museum.”
“Through photos, members of the public have access to objects that are not necessarily exhibited and can explore them at their leisure,” says Muséum director Francis Duranthon.
This is how five amateur photographers have, for months, devoted part of their spare time to taking high-definition photos of some of the 2.5 million objects in the collections. When the project started, two Swiss Wikimedians came to lend them a hand. The Muséum‘s conservation staff have also offered these amateurs their assistance.
“As we are now doing with the Château de Versailles, the museum is making it easier for us to access the collection and take photos. We work in ideal conditions, especially now that we know the photos, even with flash, are not damaging the works,” Wikimédia Program Director Adrienne Alix tells carredinfo.fr. They are then freely licenced on Wikipedia.
1,600 photos all ready to be viewed
For the moment, 1,600 photos with captions prepared with the help of the Muséum teams are available for viewing. Also, on the initiative of their professors, Latin students took on the task of completing the taxonomy of the Muséum pages.
“A total of 62,000 uses were recorded for these photos, which were used for 260 different Wikimedia projects and in exotic languages or pages,” says Ms. Alix. “Even the Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Paris uses them.” Mr. Duranthon adds, “Our collection is seen by people who probably would not go to the Muséum or are unable to because they live too far. The number of visitors to the Muséum is proof of that: with 200,000 a year, Toulousians do not pass up the opportunity to come or to visit the souvenir shop. There is nothing to prevent us from editing commercial shots. In any case, we are pretty sure that there will not be as much misuse as sharing or positive use. This initiative has also had surprising effects: for example, a Web user who lives near the Caspian Sea donated his shell collection to us because he said we were missing specimens.”
Second project around Pyrenean and Muséum director Eugène Trutat
The Muséum has also developed a second photo collection project in Wikimedia with the free exhibition of Eugène Trutat’s photos. Trutat was the Muséum‘s director from 1890 to 1901. A photography buff, he took shot after shot of Pyrenean landscapes. A total of 15,000 panes of glass were donated to the Muséum by the Association des Toulousains de Toulouse. A total of 5,000 other objects are held in the Périgord library and another 5,000 are tucked away in the municipal archives. Some of the photos were made available on Flickr in 2007. From then on, the three institutions have led a team effort to exhibit Trutat’s treasures. For the time being, 300 documents are available.
“A total of 80,000 people visited the Trutat collection in May 2012 alone,” says Mr. Duranthon.
Positive contagion in Toulouse
The Muséum is no longer the only place in Toulouse to distribute its photos to a wide audience. At the Festival Novela in October 2010, the mayor of Toulouse signed a partnership agreement with Wikimedia to share the city’s heritage freely on the Web. For the past few weeks, the Musée des Augustins has also been allowing free photography of its collections.
Can the Muséum de Toulouse’s experiment be generally applied at all museums and science venues in France? Ms. Alix replies, “It’s complicated. Some museums have already called upon photographers who set conditions on their rights. Moreover, several collections are managed by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux (RMN). The museums concerned fall under their authority with respect to photo rights.”
“It’s simpler for nature collections,” concedes Mr. Duranthon. “An elephant is an elephant.” “Our objects are more universal, not as rare as the works of the mind that paintings are.”
With several hundred new specimens in its collections, the Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Toulouse’ and Wikipedia’s project is expected to take years. Mr. Duranthon sees this as a “never-ending story” and dreams of one day offering 3D shots.
It just goes to show that experts in our very ancient history can also conceive our museums in the future!
Photos: Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Toulouse, available on Wikipedia. Based on information provided by the Muséum de Toulouse and carredinfo.fr