Tortoiseshell wig combs and case from Jamaica, engraved with the year “1671” (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

In an effort to promote access to its resources and increase public engagement, the Smithsonian Institution has released 2.8 million images from copyright restrictions on its site, Smithsonian Open Access. Visitors to the website can download and use the files in whatever way they wish without requesting express permission from the organization. The goal is to release more than three million images to open access by the end of this year.

Echoing its longstanding mission to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” the Smithsonian has invited creators to repurpose its collections in new and innovative ways. The images of items span over two centuries of work since the institution’s founding in 1846, hailing from the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo.

Cathedral window quilt by Viola Canady (Anacostia Community Museum)

A purple silk banner with gold fringe created for the Oklahoma Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (National Museum of African American History and Culture)

The Smithsonian’s push towards open access will offer “text, still images, sound recordings, research datasets, 3D models, collections data, and more,” according to the site. There may still be certain restrictions on items still under copyright — which may likely affect more recent pop culture ephemera, items directly on loan with restrictions, culturally sensitive works, an item that the institution does not yet own, or items that have not yet been digitized.

An earlier initiative to increase access to the Smithsonian’s collections made 4.7 million images and datasets available to the public for non-commercial use. Many of those have now been re-licensed with the new designation of CC0, which now allows any use without the Smithsonian’s prior approval. Google Arts & Culture partnered with the institution to launch Smithsonian Open Access.

Mid 17th-century religious icon commissioned as a gift to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (National Museum of African Art)

“Forty-niner” street advertiser in studio, San Francisco (1890) (Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery)

“Open access is a milestone for the Smithsonian in our efforts to reach, educate and inspire audiences,” said Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III in a press release. “Through this initiative, we are empowering people across the globe to reimagine and repurpose our collections in creative new ways.”

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a writer and critic based in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Village Voice,, Remezcla, the Guardian,...