Case Studies/Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

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Flickr, commons, archive, history, Sydney, Australia, play, education, photography, images


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Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum offers an iconic collection of Australian cultural artefacts whose images are captured in PHM’s ‘Photo of the Day’, plus a suite of educational materials under the banner of ‘Play’. On 7 April 2008, PHM became the first museum in the world to share its historic images on the Flickr Commons.

It’s great to see our images displayed, acknowledged, accessed and appreciated by so many passionate enthusiasts that we can engage with on our favourite subject, and hopefully so others can learn from our images. — Geoff Friend, Powerhouse Museum Photography Manager


The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney (PHM) is one of Australia’s premier cultural institutions, housing collections which express the nation’s innovation and creativity in science, technology, and the arts. With 22 permanent exhibitions, as well as 250 interactive displays, over 388,000 historically-significant objects are curated by museum staff across an area of 20,000 square metres, the equivalent of three international competition soccer fields. PHM was opened to the public on 10 March 1988, with the vision that ‘celebrates human creativity and innovation in ways that engage, inform and inspire diverse audiences.’

PHM’s history and exhibitions are captured in the Museum’s ‘Photo of the Day’, a blog which features photographs pertaining to its vast collection. Shot by PHM’s professional photographers for a variety of purposes – documenting PHM’s public events, programs and exhibitions, to behind-the-scenes operations – the images form a rich archive of life in New South Wales and beyond, as well as detailing aspects and activities of the PHM hitherto unseen. A selection of these photographs is hosted on Flickr.

On 7 April 2008, PHM announced its collaboration with Flickr to create ‘The Commons’, becoming the first museum in the world to release publicly-held historical photographs for access on the photo-sharing platform. PHM selected its Tyrrell Photographic Collection for display, an extensive series of glass plate negatives taken by photographers Charles Kerry (1857-1928) and Henry King (1855-1923), showing Sydney life in the late 19th and early 20th century. The initial Flickr collection consists of 200 black and white Tyrrell images, which are now available for public tagging and comment. PHM’s curators continue to upload 50 new images every week from the collection’s 7903 images, and, where possible, add geotags to create an interactive map documenting the position of the photographic content.

New South Wales Minister for the Arts Frank Sartor said in response to the announcement:

‘The Powerhouse Museum initiative shows that the NSW Government is a leader in increasing public access to Australian cultural collections. These evocative images of historic Sydney and early Australian life will greatly appeal to people from around the world, as well as Australians.’

‘Play at Powerhouse’ is PHM’s education program for children. It provides a resource designed for children aged up to 10 years, and involves parents and carers. ‘Play’ includes information about visiting the PHM with children, and offers activities and games around the topics of science and design to engage children at home. These can be downloaded and completed independently, but are clearly designed to enhance a visit to the Museum. The project is overseen by the Web Service Unit at the PHM, headed by Sebastian Chan.


PHM’s website received over 7.6 million unique hits in the 2006-7 financial year. This was in addition to seeing in excess of 621,000 visitors on site, and 426,000 through the travelling exhibitions. The Museum hosts over 385,000 objects in the fields of science, technology, industry, history, decorative arts, music, transport and space exploration. Icons and artefacts are displayed over 11 kilometres of gallery space as well as online.

According to Sebastian Chan’s blog post on fresh + new(er), the reaction to PHM’s Flickr Commons initiative has been remarkable. In the day following PHM’s public announcement, the Tyrrell collection received ‘plenty of views (4777), and stacks of tags (175) - in such a short time.’ In the first week of the Tyrrell collection being hosted on Flickr, PHM received nearly 20,000 views and ‘an enormous amount of tagging and "favouriting" activity combined with many congratulatory messages and support for the Museum’s release of these images into the Commons.’

License Usage

The rights and permissions pertaining to PHM’s content are clarified here, which specifies that materials housed at the Museum fall into three categories: full copyright, ‘no known copyright,’ and ‘Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDerivatives.’

In relation to the application of the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence, the site explains:

‘This licence is used on some parts of our website. Examples are our own photography in the Photo of the Day blog and also for children’s activities on our Play at Powerhouse website. This license means that you can republish this material for any non-commercial purpose as long as you give attribution back to the Powerhouse Museum as the creator and that you do not modify the work in any way. A more detailed explanation of the license is available from Creative Commons.’

In April 2007, Play’s downloadable materials were licensed using the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Licence. According to web master Sebastian Chan, the intention in licensing under Creative Commons was to allow school children and teachers to use these resources in a multitude of ways whilst balancing PHM’s internal needs.

In late November 2007, selected images from ‘Photo of the Day’ were similarly licensed. The Museum’s photographers were involved to a large part in the discussions about licensing for this project, with all agreeing to the use of CC. Having Creative Commons licensing on certain images was felt potentially to encourage interest and sales of the All Rights Reserved photos, and to enable the collection to be seen and used to a greater degree.

In relation to images displayed on Flickr Commons, the ‘no known copyright’ category indicates that the Museum is unaware of any current Copyright restrictions on this work. ‘This can be because the term of Copyright for this work may have expired or that Copyright does not apply to this type of work.’


Creative Commons Australia has been excited to follow the progress of PHM’s initiatives, and has spoken to the respective members of PHM’s development and curatorial teams over this period. Sebastian Chan, head of PHM’s Web Service Unit, expressed the following opinion about Creative Commons licensing on 17 March 2008:

‘Creative Commons provided the perfect licensing for the craft activities on our children’s website – We wanted to ensure that children, parents and teachers could download, duplicate and reuse all the craft activities on the site whilst protecting the Museum’s authorship. Creative Commons also provides a means for us to encourage the use of these in schools without teachers needing to be fearful of paying CAL fees for their use.’

Paula Bray, Manager of the Powerhouse’s Image Services, agreed with this sentiment:

‘It is great to be able to use the Creative Commons licensing tool so our audience can clearly see what the conditions of use are for Powerhouse Museum Photo of the Day images. This informative licensing model will hopefully educate people on the often complicated conditions surrounding copyright. We are using this licensing tool for our blog "Photo of the Day" to support non-commercial use of our images.’

In addition, Paula directed us towards Geoff Friend, PHM’s Photography Manager:

‘Creative Commons offers a flexible addition to the standard copyright symbol we’ve been using for many years and the great thing is it allows photographers and other creators to choose different licensing options. It’s great to see our images displayed, acknowledged, accessed and appreciated by so many passionate enthusiasts that we can engage with on our favourite subject, and hopefully so others can learn from our images.’

Further statements pertaining to PHM’s Tyrrell collection can be found here [internal link].


Powerhouse Museum at dusk, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND, The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney designed by Architect: Lionel Glendenning. The museum is located in Ultimo and is close to Sydney's central business district. File# 00z19014 Photography by Andrew Frolows