The British Museum Puts 1.9 Million Works of Art Online

Maybe it’s always too soon to make pre­dic­tions, but his­to­ri­ans of the future will like­ly view the time of COVID-19 as one of unprece­dent­ed cul­tur­al, social, and eco­nom­ic change on a vast scale. One of those changes, the open­ing of his­toric muse­um collections—photographed and uploaded in high res­o­lu­tion images, and view­able in the kind of fine detail one could nev­er get close enough to see in person—has put an advanc­ing trend into hyper­drive. The British Muse­um, for exam­ple, has just announced a “major revamp” of its dig­i­tal col­lec­tion, Vice reports, “mak­ing near­ly 1.9 mil­lion images free to use for any­one under a Cre­ative Com­mons 4.0 license.”

This addi­tion expands the museum’s online col­lec­tion to near­ly 4.5 mil­lion objects—or dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of objects. “[Y]ou can zoom in and pan over the Game of Ur, a 5,000-year-old board game played in Mesopotamia, or the sculp­ture Hoa Hakananai’a from East­er Island.”

The muse­um is trans­par­ent about some “out­stand­ing issues” with the online col­lec­tion—includ­ing minor prob­lems with lay­out and image order—but due to “extra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances” they felt it in the pub­lic inter­est to launch soon­er than lat­er. Since access is free and unre­strict­ed, one hopes there’ll be few com­plaints.

Vir­tu­al vis­i­tors can get an incred­i­bly detailed view of British Muse­um items like the 15th cen­tu­ry sil­ver and ivory hunt­ing horn from Sier­ra Leone (top), an object you can’t see in per­son, not only because the muse­um is closed but because it isn’t on dis­play. Online exhibits give us the kind of access pre­vi­ous­ly only avail­able to cura­tors. They also take us deep­er into art and archae­o­log­i­cal his­to­ry than most in-per­son vis­its can.

An encounter with the intri­cate Sut­ton Hoo hel­met, above, recov­ered at an Anglo-Sax­on bur­ial site, is inter­est­ing enough sans con­text. At the muse­um site, how­ev­er, vis­i­tors can dive into an entire les­son on the his­to­ry and mean­ing of this and oth­er incred­i­ble arti­facts stum­bled upon by a farmer in 1939 who found a ship buried in Suf­folk that turned out to be “the most impres­sive medieval grave to be dis­cov­ered in Europe.”

The demo­c­ra­t­ic util­i­ty of vast online col­lec­tions like this one can­not be over­stat­ed. The strug­gles of edu­ca­tors and par­ents these days are very real.“If you’re cur­rent­ly home­school­ing your kids,” Life­hack­er writes, “you may be inter­est­ed in the British Museum’s free online learn­ing resources geared towards stu­dents ages three to 16+. Want to learn how Egypt­ian mum­mies were made? There’s a les­son for that. Maybe you can learn what the Romans ate and drank and enjoy a Roman-themed lunch!” (Doesn’t that sound fun, par­ent who hasn’t been to the gro­cery store!) Take a vir­tu­al walk­through of the muse­um. See the Roset­ta Stone in the Egypt­ian sculp­ture gallery and the Lewis Chess­men in the Medieval Europe gallery.

Brows­ing the col­lec­tion will turn up beau­ti­ful, intrigu­ing objects at every turn. If you’ve got a par­tic­u­lar piece in mind, the muse­um pro­vides instruc­tions here for con­duct­ing tar­get­ed search­es. While it can feel like we’re sur­round­ed by scenes of scarci­ty, it’s some small com­fort to know the new nor­mal includes expand­ed vir­tu­al access to the world’s cul­tur­al trea­sures.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The British Muse­um Is Now Open To Every­one: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour and See 4,737 Arti­facts, Includ­ing the Roset­ta Stone

The British Muse­um Cre­ates 3D Mod­els of the Roset­ta Stone & 200+ Oth­er His­toric Arti­facts: Down­load or View in Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of 30 World-Class Muse­ums & Safe­ly Vis­it 2 Mil­lion Works of Fine Art

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Maxwell says:

    Went to a bunch of images and clicked on the down­load page. Every image was 150KB to 250KB. Absolute­ly point­less and worth­less. Why even both­er doing this? Very dis­ap­point­ing.

  • Tom says:

    But the British Muse­um is evil! They put peo­ple in zoos and were mean to black pan­ther! Josh Jones said so!

  • Martha Johnson says:

    I think this is an amaz­ing idea. I look for­ward to going to the muse­um even if it is from my couch on my tablet. Hope­ful­ly they get the kinks worked out but as they said hope­ful­ly there won’t be too many com­plaints con­sid­er­ing it is free! This is a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for chil­dren to see and learn about things that they may nev­er see in per­son.

  • Lynne Hayes says:

    I am look­ing for­ward to this. What a great oppor­tu­ni­ty, and I have plen­ty of time on my hands at the moment.

  • Lylian Rosa korkes says:

    I would like to vis­it the muse­um; It would be pos­si­ble?

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