Authenticity and Invisibility: The Problem of the Yellow Milkmaid

Europeana has released their second whitepaper, Whitepaper No. 2: The Problem of the Yellow Milkmaid. The whitepaper begins with an excellent example, that of the yellow Milkmaid:

‘The Milkmaid’, one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous pieces, depicts a scene of a woman quietly pouring milk into a bowl. During a survey the Rijksmuseum discovered that there were over 10,000 copies of the image on the internet—mostly poor, yellowish reproductions. As a result of all of these low-quality copies on the web, according to the Rijksmuseum, “people simply didn’t believe the postcards in our museum shop were showing the original painting. This was the trigger for us to put high-resolution images of the original work with open metadata on the web ourselves. Opening up our data is our best defence against the ‘yellow Milkmaid’.”

From the example comes the subtitle for the paper: “A Business Model Perspective on Open Metadata.” The problem, however, is far greater than a “business model perspective on open metadata” seems to suggest. If not truly present online (meaning accessible, connected, and information rich), cultural heritage institutions risk being erased in the deluge of information from other sources that make important concerns like authenticity and expertise seem less important in the face of sheer quantity.
The problem of the yellow milkmaid is an argument from a business perspective in terms of the core value propositions for cultural heritage institutions and their very reasons for existing. The problem of the yellow milkmaid is an excellent and memorable example of the need for cultural heritage institutions to engage with technologies in ways that support their core value propositions and their roles in society. The whitepaper as a whole is excellent and worth the read for its arguments on open data as well as for application to larger concerns.
Note: this post updated on 28 August 2012 to update the link to the Europeana whitepaper. The old link is now updated to the correct link above.