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Engaging with heritage through open source.

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Mash-up created using open source images of Vincent Van Gogh's 'The Bedroom' painting and William Morris wallpaper.

Mash-up replacing the walls in Vincent van Gogh’s ‘The Bedroom’ painting (Public Domain) with William Morris designed wallpaper (V&A Museum).

I’m a huge fan of everything open source, and in particular, a passionate advocate of museums and galleries releasing images and other digital assets for re-use. With more and more institutions choosing to go down the open source path, the opportunities to digitally explore our cultural heritage are ever increasing.

With this in mind, and inspired by a tweet from Jason Evans, Wikipedian in Residence at the National Museum of Wales, I started learning how to use the free image editing software Pixlr so that I could play around with some of these released assets.

I chose two of my favourite artists to focus on: contemporaries Vincent van Gogh and William Morris, as I really liked the idea of combining their very different styles.


So what did I learn?

Close-up showing detail of bottles, jugs and other items on the bedside table.

Close-up showing details previously missed in a gallery visit to see the ‘real thing’.

A surprising amount – particularly about this van Gogh painting, and the artist’s style in general. Considering that I have seen one version of the ‘real thing’ hanging in the museum in Amsterdam, this probably says quite a lot about my powers of observation (!) and perhaps something about that particular gallery experience. Creating these mash-ups offered a different, and just as rewarding, experience from that visit. Firstly, as I zoomed into the digital image I realised that there was much I had missed in the gallery viewing, for example, the details of the bottles, jug and other objects on the bedside table.

Detail from the painting 'The Bedroom' showing blurred and inconsistent edges.

Detail from the painting ‘The Bedroom’ showing van Gogh’s use of blurred and inconsistent edges.

Nor had I previously noticed how the pictures on the right hand side hang out from the wall, as if pressing themselves into the room and bearing down on the occupant, emphasising the rather cramped atmosphere.

Replacing van Gogh’s painted walls and floor with William Morris wallpaper and carpet forced the creation of clear, sharp lines around objects such as the mirror, shutters and furniture, in contrast to van Gogh’s blurred and inconsistent ones. Several times I erased and re-masked an area, studying the paint strokes and trying to decide the best line to take. As a result, I definitely have a deeper appreciation of  the use of colour and brush strokes in van Gogh’s work.

On a practical level, access to the open source software Pixlr enabled me to develop skills in image manipulation that can be put to a multitude of creative and educational uses and I engaged with these works in ways that were new and inspiring to me.

The resulting mash-ups:


Mash up using open source images of Vincent Van Gogh's 'The Bedroom' painting with William Morris wallpaper.

A second mash-up using the same painting and different William Morris wallpaper. This one really accentuates the cramped feeling of the room.  Images: Public Domain.

I do not believe that digital surrogates can or will supplant the real objects, but I do think that providing access to them, combined with free-to-use software provides opportunities to explore these artworks and objects in more personal ways than often allowed for in a gallery or museum setting. With a few hours learning at the digital grindstone, I was able to take some images, discover new things about them and manipulate them to create new artworks reflecting my personal tastes. And yes, I definitely want to go back and see the ‘real thing’ in the gallery again.


Below are links to just a few of the museums, galleries and
archives releasing digitized assets for re-use:

Open source software used:

  • Pixlr – free to use image manipulation software.
  • Gifmaker – free to use web app that turns a set of images into a gif.


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