Making a Splash with Unsplash

When Birmingham Museums Trust made the decision to release its out of copyright images into the public domain in 2018 we were realistic in knowing that this didn’t mean that there would suddenly be a huge demand for our images. We knew that our images weren’t easily discoverable unless people knew exactly what they wanted. They weren’t likely to stumble across our images online, or have them suggested to them in image searches.

The situation improved when we acquired a digital asset management system with the ability to make selected folders live online. Images added to the DAMS are keyworded to improve discoverability. From the time this went live in May 2019, we were very impressed by the numbers viewing and downloading BMT assets. In the first year we had over a million views and 23,628 downloads. It was great to see both people and organisations self service from the DAMS, for instance Watercolour World took BMT’s watercolours and added them to their website.

We wanted to encourage people to creatively use our images, and to that end we ran a number of events such as hacks, remixes and workshops 2018-2019. We followed this up with the Cut Copy Remix project, working with Cold War Steve and the Black Hole Club 2019-2020. This was a great success and has had a high profile thanks to the great popularity of Benny’s Babbies, a celebration of Birmingham and its people by Cold War Steve that was released during lockdown in April 2020. However in terms of numbers, it is our partnership with Unsplash that should be grabbing the headlines.

Unsplash approached us about becoming a “brand partner” in late 2019. We didn’t know much about them, but a quick Wikipedia check revealed them to be “one of the largest photography suppliers on the internet”, allowing people to freely reuse, repurpose and remix photos. They sounded the perfect partners for us! And so with a bit of a splash, in Jan 2020 we joined Unsplash along with New York Public Library, Europeana, Library of Congress and Museums Victoria.

From the very beginning we were amazed by the numbers of people viewing and downloading our images! Since joining we have had over 200 million views and 1 million downloads of the 265 images chosen to be featured by Unsplash. Museums often talk about their reach, and although that isn’t all about numbers, you have to admit that those numbers are HUGE! And it was wonderful that our images were being discovered and used by people in such a difficult year. With lockdown so many people found themselves stuck at home, and for some, becoming more creative and taking up new hobbies were positive ways to try to get through this experience.

Unsplash have good analytics information, and one of the interesting things for me is seeing what is popular, as people aren’t searching for Birmingham’s images, they are searching by keywords to find something that is perfect for what they are writing or creating. As a result the usual suspects, the BMAG favourites, have dropped down the pecking order. To me this shows how important it is to get keywording right for museums, it isn’t enough to rely on Title, Artist, etc – we need to think more like a supplier of stock images if we want people to find our images.

The Phantom Horseman,1870-93 by Sir John Gilbert. 3,386,727 views and 23,965 downloads on Unsplash.

People often ask “how” people are using our images, and of course that is hard to answer unless we notice or are told. We don’t require attribution (it is optional) because it isn’t something we would want to (or be able to) police. So it was exciting to see a tweet from Luke Chester Co-founder and Head of Product at Unsplash to say that we’d now be able to see some of the online uses of our images in the stats area. It really is a great new feature, especially for someone as curious as me! There is something about seeing the images used numerous times in blogs, articles, etc that is very satisfying – and nice to see that in many cases BMT is credited.

Linda Spurdle, Digital Development Manager, Birmingham Museums Trust.