Most Americans have been to the Smithsonian Institution museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — whether it was on a family vacation, or on their 8th grade field trip to the nation’s capital, or because they lived or worked in the D.C. area as Kish and I did back in the ’80s. The museums are a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon and are filled with interesting things and insights.
But you can only enjoy them if you are on the National Mall. Until now, that is.
The Smithsonian is releasing 2.8 million images from its collection in all of its museums, libraries, and archives into the public domain. The massive release includes both two-dimensional and three-dimensional high resolution images that have been downloaded onto an open-access online platform, which you can find here. The on-line platform invites the public to “download, share, and reuse millions of the Smithsonian’s images—right now, without asking.” The first download is just the beginning, as the Smithsonian continues an effort to digitize its collection of more than 155 million items and artifacts.
The Smithsonian’s release is part of a growing effort by museums to move their collections into the public domain, where they can be perused and enjoyed by anyone with access to a computer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and more than 200 other museums across the world are part of the effort, although the Smithsonian release is by far the most extensive. The Smithsonian magazine article linked above explains that the materials in the Smithsonian on-line platform are now covered by a Creative Commons Zero license, which frees the items “from all restrictions, copyright or otherwise, enabling anyone with a decent Internet connection to build on them as raw materials—and ultimately participate in their evolution.” And the on-line platform is easy to use, with a simple search function. I like dinosaurs, so I did a search for an allosaurus, and downloaded the image above — which is now in the public domain.
I’m a museum lover, and can happily spend hours browsing through exhibitions, so I hope there is always a place for the quiet, thoughtful, in-person museum experience. But I also am a proponent of putting things into the public domain and increasing access, and applaud the Smithsonian and the other museums participating in the effort for taking a leadership role in making their collections accessible to everyone.