La Réunion des musées nationaux – Grand Palais (RMN) is an influential arm of the French Ministry of Culture with a worldwide reach and mission “to promote access to culture throughout the national territory, and beyond.” The law that created the organization states that its purpose is “to publish and distribute, by all means and on all media, works and derivative products linked, in particular, to the national collections and to ensure their commercial distribution”.
RMN lends its support to every French national museum and cooperates with important museums around the world. A major European art publisher, it publishes books and catalogs, produces exhibitions and performances, and operates 34 gift shops. RMN’s photo agency produces tens of thousands of photographs each year and manages the licensing and distribution of its catalog of 800,000 images.
RMN refers to itself as a key player — un acteur de référence — in the field of 3D digitization. It operates a sophisticated 3D scanning department that since 2013 has produced nearly two thousand 3D scans of important works in French national museums. Venus de Milo; Nike of Samothrace; works by Michelangelo; medieval, renaissance, and 18th, 19th, and early 20th century sculptures; and ancient artifacts from all over the world have been 3D scanned in ultra haute définition.
In RMN’s many hundreds of beautiful advertisements — which have been running since 2015 and viewed more than half a million times — the public is invited to contact RMN for direct access to more than 800 of these 3D scans. The organization’s online store displays its 3D scans for sale to the public for both non-commercial and commercial reuse. RMN acknowledges the cultural importance of making its scans available for commercial reuse, and its pleasure in leading the way.
While open access advocates would argue that RMN should make its 3D scans available at no charge and without usage restrictions, what the organization presents today appears to be a slick implementation of the kind of fee-for-license marketplace that many cultural institutions struggle to make work. RMN appears to enjoy both prestige and revenue from making its 3D scans available to the world.
However, RMN reacts very strangely when the public actually asks to purchase those scans.
In May 2022, I wrote to RMN to ask for access to its high-quality 3D scan of Panthère marchant (Walking Panther), a 1904 sculpture by Rembrandt Bugatti, an Italian sculptor whose work I admire. I asked RMN to tell me the license terms and royalties I would need to pay for me to use the scan for personal, non-commercial use, to study the artist’s technique and style.
Its explanation was absurd; the organization claimed it was new to producing and distributing 3D scans and didn’t have authorization from its museum partners to distribute them.
I asked RMN to reconsider its refusal, especially in light of its many long-running and ongoing ads announcing its scans’ availability and sale. I reminded RMN of its legal obligation to make its scans accessible to the public. I even urged RMN to seek the advice of La Commission d’accès aux documents administratifs (CADA), the French government agency that advises the administration and courts on FOIA law and gives its formal, pre-trial analyses in case of disputes.
RMN went silent.
After two months of refusals and unresponsiveness, I warned RMN if it did not send me the requested 3D scan and fee and license terms, I would refer the matter to the CADA. I wanted RMN to understand I wasn’t bluffing so I showed it the appeal, facts, and supporting documents I had prepared to send the CADA if it did not respond.
RMN did not respond.
On July 14, 2022, Bastille Day, I referred RMN’s manifestly illegal refusal to make its 3D scan accessible to me to the CADA. You can read the documents I submitted at the links below. They include my complete correspondence with RMN, relevant facts, and several compelling supporting exhibits.
RMN will be required finally to either give me the 3D scan or explain its refusal to the CADA. Any statements RMN makes to the CADA will be made available to me and l will report them here and at @CosmoWenman. As I put it to RMN, the public will be interested to know why the organization “is sabotaging its own sophisticated digitization and distribution infrastructure in order to make 3D scans of French cultural patrimony inaccessible to the public.”
If the CADA finds in my favor and explains to RMN its obligation under the law to make its 3D scan of Panthère marchant available to the public, that will naturally have very clear implications for establishing public access to all of RMN’s 2,000 3D scans. So I hope RMN understands that I am determined to have access to its scan of this charming panther sculpture and confident I will get it.
How confident am I?
If the CADA finds in my favor and RMN still refuses, I will bring RMN before the Administrative Tribunal of Paris, where with the support of open culture organizations Wikimédia France, COMMUNIA, and La Quadrature du Net, I am currently suing Musée Rodin over its illegal refusal to allow the public to access 3D scans of Auguste Rodin’s works. That case has not even had its first hearing, but my court filings have already forced Musée Rodin in its panicked, flailing defense to publish several of its 3D scans.
I did not need to take legal action against the reluctant Egyptian Museum of Berlin to convince it to release its 3D scan of its prized possession, the Bust of Nefertiti, but I was willing to.
And how confident is RMN in its position?
Based on my previous disputes in Paris and Berlin, I expect that RMN will soon adopt an official “no comment” policy on its own policies. Its responses in the official proceedings in my case will be the only source of insight into this important public establishment’s position on public access to one of the most valuable collections of 3D scans in the world.
Whatever internal conflicts or lack of direction are animating RMN’s contradictory policies, there must be at least a few people within the organization who want to share their important work with the world instead of merely pretending to.
I wish them luck, and I will do what I can to help.
Last updated July 20, 2022
Submitted to the CADA 14 July 2022:
01_20220714 Cosmo Wenman RMNGP faits et correspondance.pdf
02_20220714 Cosmo Wenman RMNGP documents justificatifs.pdf
CADA acknowledged receipt of the case on 15 July 2022:
20220715 CADA receipt of demand no 20224442.pdf