The British Museum Just Made 1.9M Stunningly Detailed Images Free Online

While everyone is stuck at home due to Covid-19, the collection allows people to get a better view of some key objects than they would in person.
Image: The Trustees of the British Museum​
Image: The Trustees of the British Museum

Lockdowns and quarantines are essential to slowing the spread of Covid-19, but they are also understandably making some people a little stir-crazy. That’s why the British Museum announced a “major revamp” of its digital collection on Tuesday that included making nearly 1.9 million images free to use for anyone under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.

While it is not possible to wander through this iconic museum right now, as it remains closed due to Covid-19, the update offers an opportunity to virtually tour its immense collection of artifacts and artwork.


“We are delighted to be able to unveil this major revamp early, and hope that these important objects can provide inspiration, reflection or even just quiet moments of distraction during this difficult time,” said Hartwig Fischer, director of the museum, in a statement.

In addition to making nearly two million images available to the public—for noncommercial purposes and with correct attribution, that is—the museum has added enhanced views of important artifacts that reveal details that would not be observable even if you visited the exhibits in person.

For instance, you 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 plans to expand the number of key artifacts that users can examine in close-up views over the coming weeks and months. As part of the revamp, the museum also released nearly 300,000 images for the first time.

The collection is an edifying way to either escape from all the pandemic news, or even explore how past cultures approached similar challenges. When I entered the keyword “plague” into the database, for instance, I found a gnarly 1783 satirical illustration, complete with witches, subtitled “the Birth of the Plagues of England.”


Image: The Trustees of the British Museum

The search also turned up more serious depictions of past outbreaks, such as the above print of the Plague of Athens in which people are clearly not abiding by any social distancing measures.

The keyword “quarantine” turned up this sketch of ships undergoing isolation protocols in 18th century Malta, and “isolation” led to a lithograph that shows the exact opposite of a face mask (to that point, if you are looking for some mask inspiration, there are thousands of examples in the collection).

We’re all looking forward to being able to visit our old local haunts, or even indulge in trips to museums and other attractions around the world. But in the meantime, which may be quite a while, the British Museum’s digital collection can deliver the culture fix you might be craving.