Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by The Natural History Museum


The Natural History Museum is one of the world's great museums

  The Natural History Museum is one of the world's greatest resources for reference, research and information on the natural environment, guardians of a 70 million specimen collection of living species, fossils and minerals, a powerhouse of scientific research, an institute for inspiration and creativity that annually welcomes millions of scientists and visitors.

  The NHM website ( has as many or more visits than our physical sites at South Kensington and Tring: there were over 10 million visits last year, with approximately 3.5 million unique Internet Provider (IP) addresses, and the website holds over a million records. Through the use of new media the NHM has greatly increased access to its collections, making them available to a much broader and geographically diverse population.

  This submission will address the following issues:

    A.  The impact upon creative industries of recent and future developments in digital convergence and media technology.

    B.  The extent to which a regulatory environment should be applied to creative content accessed using non-traditional media platforms.

    C.  Where the balance should lie between the rights of creators and the expectations of consumers in the context of the BBC's Creative Archive and other developments.

(A)  The impact upon creative industries of recent and future developments in digital convergence and media technology

  1.  Recent developments in digital convergence and media technology have had a complex impact on both the development and delivery of the NHM's creative content. While increasing NHM audience access to a range of rich media and interactive content, it has also increased the pressure on NHM resources to invest in new forms of digital content and delivery, in order to meet increasing audience expectations. However, the need for such investment is still not embedded and understood as core to museum business across the sector. As a result, although the impact on the museum resources has grown considerably in the last five years, many museums are yet to develop robust funding and distribution models and the required skill sets needed to meet audience expectations.

  2.  As an example of increased audience access, the NHM produces approximately two video broadcasts a week and has over 100 archived videos, many of them with supporting information. Although broadcast live, most of the videos are accessed through our website archive and found via a search engine such as Google. With over 2,500 being viewed each month they are an important and effective means of delivering rich media content about natural history to the NHM's audiences of lifelong and formal learners.

  3.  This content has been made feasible by the convergence of digital technologies and the development and uptake of broadband, allowing in-house production and distribution of digital content via the web. Without these developments it is doubtful whether these materials would be available to the public, as their specialist subject matter and relatively low production values make them inappropriate for distribution via mainstream analogue or digital networks.

  4.  The development of mobile internet and handsets capable of accessing animations and video-streaming gives the NHM an even greater opportunity to deliver personalized rich content to its audience, enhancing the visitor experience both in situ and at home.

  5.  As mobile Internet use grows, audience's expectations of receiving timely and relevant information anywhere/anytime increase; for example, the use of Identification (ID) keys on flora when on walks or historical and cultural information when visiting city spaces. Evaluation has shown that the NHM's audiences would welcome this opportunity to continue to explore and access a wide range of related content in their own time.

  6.  Audiences also have increased expectations of delivery of rich media interactive content both within galleries and online. Current developments in "audience-generated" content has opened opportunities for museums to engage in two-way communication with their audiences, rather than remaining a one-way and effectively didactic information channel. The public no longer expects to be passive consumers of information but active manipulators and communicators of information. The rise of wikis and bloggs demonstrate this trend. To facilitate these expectations, the development of tools and processes that allow visitors to engage in discussion, and create and deposit information are needed.

  7.  The convergence of new media technologies and the resulting sophisticated development and delivery of content has a serious impact on NHM core business and resources. Museums need to develop and maintain digital production values commensurate with their physical offering, national standing and current market values if they are to continue to engage and meet their audience's growing expectations. Advances in gaming technology and computer-processing power put an onus on museums to deliver the quality and sophistication that the public expect. Unless museums can keep up with these developments and the opportunities offered they risk becoming increasingly anachronistic and irrelevant to audience experiences. For many museums the creation and delivery of rich-media content (such as video and games) is now an expected addition to their physical exhibition and significantly extends their content development and audience reach.

  8.  Maintaining this capability has repercussions for museum infrastructure and resources, from content and interpretation experts, to the digital production team. Increasingly sophisticated new media technology has implicit requirements in resourcing Research and Development (R&D) if acceptable levels of innovation in parallel with the commercial environment are to be delivered. Even museums that outsource production need expertise and skills to manage and deliver quality assurance of digital development.

  9.  Although an increasingly high proportion of audiences access content via digital channels (for the NHM virtual visits to physical visits are approximately 3:1), fulfilment of this digital audience's expectations is still not fully recognized as core to museum business. Adequate funding therefore remains an issue, as does proven business models for recouping investment. Distribution of museums' digital content to a wider audience has to compete with the commercial interests of major portals and search engines, and as such has the same difficulties as any public service distribution. Together these issues make it difficult for museums to adequately plan and resource the rapidly changing digital landscape.

  10.  Although the convergence of new media technologies has opened up museum resources to a wider audience, and enabled development and distribution of specialized subject matter, the associated growing expectations of audiences has meant additional pressure on museums to constantly invest and re-develop their digital content.

(B)  The extent to which a regulatory environment should be applied to creative content accessed using non-traditional media platforms

  11.  Creative content accessed via non-traditional media platforms involves the same social issues and responsibilities as that delivered via traditional platforms. Therefore, the same regulatory environment of restrictions to content for the vulnerable should apply.

  12.  New issues of regulation arise when examining the distribution models for content supplied by new platforms and the regulation of access to the platforms themselves. Mobile carriers and portals currently manage the majority of distribution deals for many content providers and they are primarily based on commercial models. With the development of new mobile platforms and their increasing popularity, it is important that the non-commercial and cultural sector maintain successful methods for distributing their content and ensuring easy access via a range of media platforms.

  13.  Different models of distribution need to be considered for non-profit organisations that will establish a benchmark for access to content and that will not favour the operator at the expense of the content provider or audience.

  14.  The regulations concerning audience access to media platforms, particularly mobiles, also need to be clarified and upheld. The Stewart Report in 2005 reaffirmed that the restrictions of mobile use for under-elevens was good practice. The effect of this has been a reluctance shown by cultural organisations to develop content for this age group and for potential sponsors to provide support. However, sales and usage of mobiles to this age group continues to grow, and users are becoming increasingly conversant with using the medium to research and source content. As a result younger audiences are consuming extensive spam and commercial content, such as ring-tones, wallpapers, songs and television programmes, with little in the way of learning or cultural content to provide balance. Although regulations have been put in place to restrict under-age access to adult content there has been no consideration given to the wider cultural landscape that operators are creating for younger audiences. This is a lost opportunity to engage with younger audiences and increase their access to a variety of stimulating cultural and educative content.

  15.  As distribution of content on new media platforms becomes increasingly concentrated on a few portals and search engines, traditional issues of restrictions on distribution for smaller, non-commercial content producers arise. Major portals and ISP's are gatekeepers for content distribution. Most are based on a commercial model, effectively restricting distribution of non-commercial and not-for-profit content.

  16.  The majority of content is now accessed via search engines, with giants such as Yahoo and Google having the majority share. Public sector sites, such as the "org", "ac", "edu" and "gov" domains, do not provide direct income to search engines or a share in a pay-for-placement and/or pay-for-inclusion revenue stream. To date there has been little interest in establishing search engines that specialize in public-sector websites. Ranking methods partly via "power popularity" of web pages do not necessarily meet the needs of niche cultural and public sector content. Additionally there are few detailed published standards on ranking by search engines, and search engines remain unaccountable for the ranking delivered. Without regulation there are no safeguards that search engines will develop equitable methods of searching both public sector and commercial websites. For public service and cultural sites this could mean that future access to the material becomes increasingly difficult and capricious as our web presence becomes effectively hidden.

(C)  Where the balance should lie between the rights of creators and the expectations of consumers in the context of the BBC's Creative Archive and other developments

  17.  The Creative Archive, as it currently stands, affords an opportunity for creators to share their work, for it to be re-used within educational and non-commercial environments while being fully attributed. As such, it gives great opportunity for content to be fully utilised and appreciated by a wider audience.

  18.  However, one significant area of tension in the "Creative Commons" concept or the BBC's Creative Archive arises around moral rights, or droit d'auteur, particularly that area that applies to ensuring that the integrity of authors is not compromised.

  19.  Museums hold content on behalf of individuals or organisations. As custodians of content they must ensure that the integrity of the original author is not damaged. With the topicality and sensitivity of some of the content there is a real issue surrounding the context in which the content appears, and there is an argument that museums must continue to be able to act as custodians of all content produced within a Creative Commons framework. This has significant resource implications.

  20.  However, the progression and development of ideas is often based on the ability to be able to extend, distort and re-examine ideas, and to put them in a different context. The classic example is the drawing of a moustache on the reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

  21.  A question therefore arises as to whether the concept of moral rights should be re-examined in the context of the Creative Commons, or whether they should be upheld as traditionally understood. Any formalized framework to uphold moral rights will result in a higher level of required resources.

  22.  Within a scientific arena, such as the NHM's, this could give exciting opportunities for development, with a formalized review mechanism and the establishment of relationships with the originating authors (or museums) as part of a curatorial or scientific framework. However, as previously stated, this would involve significant resources on the part of the rights holder in order to sustain and manage those relationships.

February 2006

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