The Smithsonian Puts 4.5 Million High-Res Images Online and Into the Public Domain, Making Them Free to Use

That vast repos­i­to­ry of Amer­i­can his­to­ry that is the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion evolved from an orga­ni­za­tion found­ed in 1816 called the Columbian Insti­tute for the Pro­mo­tion of Arts and Sci­ences. Its man­date, the col­lec­tion and dis­sem­i­na­tion of use­ful knowl­edge, now sounds very much of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry — but then, so does its name. Colum­bia, the god­dess-like sym­bol­ic per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, is sel­dom direct­ly ref­er­enced today, hav­ing been super­seded by Lady Lib­er­ty. Traits of both fig­ures appear in the depic­tion on the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry fire­man’s hat above, about which you can learn more at Smith­son­ian Open Access, a dig­i­tal archive that now con­tains some 4.5 mil­lion images.

“Any­one can down­load, reuse, and remix these images at any time — for free under the Cre­ative Com­mons Zero (CC0) license,” write My Mod­ern Met’s Jes­si­ca Stew­art and Madeleine Muz­dakis. “A dive into the 3D records shows every­thing from CAD mod­els of the Apol­lo 11 com­mand mod­ule to Hor­a­tio Gree­nough’s 1840 sculp­ture of George Wash­ing­ton.”

The 2D arti­facts of inter­est include “a por­trait of Poc­a­hon­tas in the Nation­al Por­trait Gallery, an image of the 1903 Wright Fly­er from the Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um, and box­ing head­gear worn by Muham­mad Ali from the Nation­al Muse­um of African Amer­i­can His­to­ry and Cul­ture.”

The NMAAHC in par­tic­u­lar has pro­vid­ed a great many items rel­e­vant to twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can cul­ture, like James Bald­win’s inkwell, Chuck Berry’s gui­tar May­bel­lene, Pub­lic Ene­my’s boom­box, and the poster for a 1968 Nina Simone con­cert. The more obscure object just above, a Native Amer­i­can kachi­na fig­ure with the head of Mick­ey Mouse, comes from the Smith­son­ian Amer­i­can Art Muse­um. “When Dis­ney Stu­dios put a mouse hero on the sil­ver screen in the 1930s,” explain the accom­pa­ny­ing notes, “Hopi artists saw in Mick­ey Mouse a cel­e­bra­tion of Tusan Homichi, the leg­endary mouse war­rior who defeat­ed a chick­en-steal­ing hawk” — and were thus them­selves inspired, it seems, to sum up a wide swath of Amer­i­can his­to­ry in a sin­gle object.

More items are being added to Smith­son­ian Open Access all the time, each with its own sto­ry to tell — and all acces­si­ble not just to Amer­i­cans, but inter­net users the world over. In that sense it feels a bit like the Chica­go World’s Fair of 1893, bet­ter known as the World’s Columbian Expo­si­tion, with its mis­sion of reveal­ing Amer­i­ca’s sci­en­tif­ic, tech­no­log­i­cal, and artis­tic genius to the whole of human civ­i­liza­tion. You can see a great many pho­tos and oth­er arti­facts of this land­mark event at Smith­son­ian Open Access, or, if you pre­fer, you can click the “just brows­ing” link and behold all the his­tor­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and for­mal vari­ety avail­able in the Smith­so­ni­an’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tions, where the spir­it of Colum­bia lives on.

via Kot­tke/My Mod­ern Met

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Library of Con­gress Launch­es the Nation­al Screen­ing Room, Putting Online Hun­dreds of His­toric Films

The Smith­son­ian Design Muse­um Dig­i­tizes 200,000 Objects, Giv­ing You Access to 3,000 Years of Design Inno­va­tion & His­to­ry

The Smith­son­ian Presents a Gallery of 6,000+ Rare Rock ‘n Roll Pho­tos on a Crowd­sourced Web Site, and Now a New Book

Why 99% Of Smithsonian’s Spec­i­mens Are Hid­den In High Secu­ri­ty

John Green’s Crash Course in U.S. His­to­ry: From Colo­nial­ism to Oba­ma in 47 Videos

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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