This week, the Smithsonian is taking a major step forward in democratizing American history. The new initiative Smithsonian Open Access allows for images and data formerly housed in the institution’s private collections to be freely accessible to anyone, unrestricted by copyrights.
This follows in the footsteps of other open access programs spearheaded by cultural institutions. Earlier this year, Paris Musées, Paris’s museum system, uploaded more than 150,000 digital reproductions of artwork for free use.
The Smithsonian inaugurated its database of free content by removing formal copyrights from roughly 2.8 million images and informational materials stretching back to the 19th century and has plans to designate 3 million additional images by the end of the year. The Smithsonian has 19 museums, and nine research centers, libraries, and archives, plus Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo. All of these branches contributed content to the effort, which spans disciplines, decades, and design styles.
Now that these archival materials live in the public domain (through digital platforms like Google Arts & Culture, Wikipedia, and Creative Commons), they will make it easier for everyone, from academic researchers to students working on book reports to armchair historians, to supplement their work with rich, historic visuals.
In the database, there are images of significant artifacts, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Peacock Side Chair and Octavia Butler’s vintage blue typewriter. There are images of historic artworks, too: Abraham Lincoln’s sepia portrait and Edgar Degas’s portrait of Mary Cassatt, among them.
While the Smithsonian has made some 4.7 million collection images available in the past, downloading the images came with limitations; they could only be used for noncommercial purposes, such as personal and educational projects. But Smithsonian Open Access allows documents to be used for both noncommercial and commercial purposes, for no fee.
“Open access exemplifies the Smithsonian’s core mission: the ‘increase and diffusion’ of knowledge our institution has fostered for nearly 175 years,” John Davis, interim director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and leader of the initiative, said in a release. (Davis has been at the helm of the Design Museum, since director Caroline Baumann stepped down amid controversy earlier this month.) “With Smithsonian Open Access, we’re inviting people everywhere to make that knowledge their own—to share and build on our digital collections for everything from creative works, to education and scholarly research, to bold innovations we have yet to imagine.”