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Smithsonian Releases 2.8 Million Images to Public Domain

The Smithsonian Institution has released millions of high-resolution images from its collections so that members of the public can download them freely. Over two million two-dimensional images and tens of thousands of three-dimensional ones will now be available on an open-access digital platform. The online images will enable patrons to view large numbers of the institution’s artefacts and artworks from home for the first time in its 174-year history. If they want to keep a copy of the digitised images they see, then the virtual visitors will be able to download them without any charge being levied.

A Wide-Ranging Project

As the largest group of museums in the world, the digital access project features material from all 19 of the institution’s museums. Additional data and pictures have been supplied from the group’s research centres, its libraries and other archives. Even the National Zoo in the United States has made a contribution to the project. The newly presented digital archive is an attempt to encourage the public to interact with the Smithsonian’s collections more. The idea is that people will not simply view its contents as though they were on a virtual visit to the National Mall in Washington DC – where many of the country’s largest museums are situated – but actually use the material they now have access to creatively. The terms of the public access licence that the images come with means that they can be reused and transformed entirely freely with little by way of restriction.

Effie Kapsalis, who – as the Smithsonian’s senior digital program officer – led much of the current phase of the project – said that remaining relevant as an educational source for people who are learning was key to the Smithsonian’s mission. Since the downloadable images will be available around the world and not only to US citizens, the uses that they might be put to have no real limits. We can’t imagine what people are going to do with them,” Kapsalis said. “We are expecting to be surprised.”

The 2.8 million-image roll out is just the beginning of the digital project. According to Kapsalis, over the course of the coming year, the Smithsonian will be making a further 200,000 digital images available to download. The continuing project of public access requires the institution to carry on taking scans of its collections in order to digitise the lot. Currently, the collection stands at 155 million individual items with that number rising every month. As such, it may be some time before the whole collection is made available to download.

Popular Images

Under the Creative Commons 0 licence, which effectively means that no rights are reserved, some images are highly likely to be downloaded many times by ordinary members of the public. For example, the famous command module of the Apollo 11 moon mission that dates back to 1969 is available to anyone now. Measuring only a few metres across, there is a full scan of both the exterior and the interior. Others digitised images include dinosaur fossils and even the death mask of President Lincoln. One of the smallest three-dimensional digital models is of a fragile Embreea orchid which measures just a few centimetres. The largest that the institution has made available is the remnant of the Cassiopeia A supernova which is thought to be about 29 light-years wide. Which ones will be most popular remains to be seen, of course.

An Inter-Disciplinary Approach

Professor Simon Tanner of King’s College London acted in an advisory capacity to the Smithsonian Institution during the project. “The sheer scale of this… is astonishing,” he said. Tanner, who has been working with major cultural institutions and museums globally to assist them in transforming their collections for over two decades said that the project has opened a much wider scope of content than other collections could possibly achieve. “It crosses science and culture, space and time,” he said. “This constitutes a staggering contribution to human knowledge.”

Museum Benefits

One of the most tangible gains for the Smithsonian will be what Tanner referred to as a ‘massive increase’ in the scale of the public’s interaction with the institution. He said that he thought it would be a project that will not only maintain the museum group’s already substantial cultural prestige but that it would boost it, too. According to him, the digitisation project would attract old audiences back to the institution as well as helping it to establish new ones.

Tanner said that as soon as the freely available images start to make their way onto other public access platforms, such as Wikipedia, the effects will be startling. “As soon as you open collections up [in this way],” he said, “it is transformative.” For its part, the Wikimedia Foundation welcomed the Smithsonian’s digital access project, stating that it hoped high-resolution art and other research data would help to rebalance under-representation of certain groups on its platform.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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