Smithsonian Unleashes Millions of Images into the Public Domain

Among the images available on the Smithsonian Institution’s new open access platform is this photograph of the Lockheed 5B Vega flown by Amelia Earhart. (Smithsonian Institution. Gift of the Franklin Institute)

On Feb. 25, 2020, the Smithsonian Institution launched a new open access platform that offers the public millions of images from its vast collections — totaling 155 million and counting. Around the globe, people can now see works they are unable to view in person; they can also use the images for educational, research and creative purposes.

The venture has started with a mere 2.8 million high-resolution, two- and three-dimensional images that can be viewed and downloaded free of charge with few restrictions. And the Smithsonian promises many more to come — as many as 200,000 by the end of the year — including still images, sound recordings, research databases, 3D models, collections data and more.

According to Effie Kapsalis, the Smithsonian’s senior digital program officer, “Being a relevant source for people who are learning around the world is key to our mission.” Kapsalis sees this as a “modern-day revamp” of the institution’s 174-year-old mission — dedicated to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Prior to this, the Smithsonian, like most institutions, retained the rights to items in its collection, leasing them only upon request for personal or educational purposes, but otherwise forbidding their use. The Smithsonian has not released any collection items still in copyright.

To view and download images from the Smithsonian’s digitized collection, visit the Smithsonian Open Access Portal at www.si.edu/openaccess.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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