Beginning today, art lovers around the world can peruse the entire collections of two Smithsonian Asian art museums from the comfort of their homes. The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have digitized 40,000 artworks (open.asia.si.edu), many of which have never been seen. These include ancient Chinese jades and bronzes, Islamic art, Chinese paintings and ancient Persian and Egyptian artifacts. If the physical objects were lined up in a row, they would stretch 1,000 feet, but their digital versions consume only 10 terabytes of data.
“We’re poised at a digital tipping point, and the nature of what it means to be a museum is changing,” said Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art. The project marks the first time that Asian art institutions have made their collections available online. It’s also the first solo digitization effort by the Smithsonian, which has previously collaborated with Google’s Art Project and Google’s Cultural Institute on other online endeavors.
Mass digitization projects like the Smithsonian’s go back to the early 1990s, when the Library of Congress first released its American Memory website, giving armchair historians the ability to access rare documents like George Washington’s personal papers. In 2004, Google announced the largest digitization project yet — a partnership with five institutions to bring 15 million books online. Since then, mass digitization has exploded, with projects like the Digital Public Library of America offering web users unprecedented access to primary documents. We now live in an age where we can scrutinize Houdini’s scrapbooks, Rembrandt’s etchings, or Albert Einstein’s papers — all without ever leaving bed.
“The depth of the data we’re releasing illuminates each object’s unique history, from its original creator to how it arrived at the Smithsonian,” Courtney O’Callaghan, director of digital media and technology at the galleries, said. “Now, a new generation can not only appreciate these works on their own terms, but remix this content in ways we have yet to imagine.”