Can’t Touch This (Or Can You?): An Experience in Rights Management

“How do you feel about working in copyright?”, my academic supervisor asked me back in April. My response was non-committal. I may not have been sure exactly where my interests lay in the museum sector, but I didn’t think that copyright was on my radar at all. However I decided to take the plunge and try something new.

My name is Helena Botes, and for the past five weeks I’ve been an intern for Rights Management here at Te Papa. I came to Te Papa from the Museum and Heritage studies program at Victoria University. At the start of June, armed with a new work-appropriate wardrobe, I found myself getting ready for my first day. Having spent most of my student life working as a nanny, the world of copyright and museums seemed like a foreign country.

When considering a piece of art, sometimes a simple word description can’t quite convey the vibrancy of the piece. This is where I have stepped in. Copyright clearance is that bridge between telling and showing. It’s the difference between this description: “Nine pieces of ceramic formed into a large piece of popcorn. Coloured glaze over white slip with a top layer of reflector beads.”, compared with this image.

Popcorn, 2014, Dunedin, by Madeleine Child. Purchased 2014. Te Papa (2014-0009-1/1-9 to 9-9)

Popcorn, 2014, Dunedin, by Madeleine Child. Purchased 2014. Te Papa (2014-0009-1/1-9 to 9-9)

So what exactly does copyright clearance involve? Victoria tasked me to research artist details, write licence applications, send forms out and process returns as they came in. I’ve found that, while it seemed like a lot of staring at a computer screen, copyright licences are an essential puzzle piece to Te Papa. I’ve been responsible for negotiating licences for new art acquisitions to Te Papa. I have also joined the ranks of interns who have ventured into the depths of the Muka Studio archive.

Untitled, 2004, Auckland, by Harry Watson. Purchased 2010. Te Papa (CA000933/014/0020)

Untitled, 2004, Auckland, by Harry Watson. Purchased 2010. Te Papa (CA000933/014/0020)

As the copyright licences get returned, more and more images become available to view on Collections Online. It’s great to see the benefit of my research, especially when you know these images can now reach a wide audience. And as it turns out, not every artist even remembers their artwork or knows that Te Papa has acquired their art. One of the best things about getting licences back is the positive artist feedback and their generosity to share extra information with the museum.

During my time at Te Papa I’ve discovered a few things.

  • Opening mail becomes like opening Christmas presents. Which artist will I hear from today? How many licences are in my inbox this morning? It’s always a surprise.
  • It’s satisfying to send a licence out to an address that took a long while to find.
  • The best music to type to is orchestral movie soundtracks. My playlist of the placement has been Mad Max: Fury Road.
  • Exactly how many cups of coffee I can consume in a day.
Gulp, 2000, Auckland, by Myriam Laplante. Purchased 2010. Te Papa (CA000935/001/0061)

Gulp, 2000, Auckland, by Myriam Laplante. Purchased 2010. Te Papa (CA000935/001/0061)

Thanks to my copyright superstar supervisor, Victoria Leachman, I have had a blast at Te Papa. I have been extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with her and all the other staff who have helped me out along the way. It’s been a great experience to be part of the team at Te Papa.

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