Smithsonian Releases 2.8 Million Incredible Images Into the Public Domain

With Smithsonian Open Access, you can easily peruse millions of amazing photos from the museum system's vast collection and do whatever you want with them.
February 26, 2020, 1:00pm
Smithsonian Releases 2.8 Million Incredible Images Into the Public Domain
Left: Statue of Cleopatra. Right: Muhammad Ali's headgear. Images: Smithonian

America’s Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum system. The Smithsonian oversees 19 museums, nine research centers, various libraries and archives, the National Zoo, and 155 million separate artifacts. Now, for the first time, the Smithsonian has uploaded more than 2.8 million images from its collection online.

Even better, it’s put those images in the public domain under a Creative Commons Zero license. No rights are reserved and the public can do with the images of the Smithsonian’s treasures what it wishes.


The 2.8 million images are part of the launch of Smithsonian Open Access—a new website that allows users to peruse the museum system’s vast collection. The uploads are much more than just images. Users can enjoy scans of artifacts like the hatch from the Apollo 11 in 3D with a VR headset, access more than 100 years of data via a GitHub repository and an API, and browse research datasets.

This launch is just the beginning. The Smithsonian has said it plans to upload another 200,000 images in 2020 and will continue to digitize its 155-million-strong collection. Uploads of the images are great, but the public domain nature of the Smithsonian’s project is the really revolutionary part. Many museums maintain copyrights over high quality images from its collection. The Smithsonian is letting the public download and remix everything it uploads.

“Being a relevant source for people who are learning around the world is key to our mission,” Effie Kapsalis, the Smisthsonian’s senior digital program officer, said in Smithsonian Magazine. “We can’t imagine what people are going to do with the collections. We’re prepared to be surprised.”

The Smithsonian’s Open Access page is home to many strange and beautiful objects from American history. In a few minutes of browsing, I uncovered photos of Octavia Butler’s Olivetti typewriter, the taxidermied U.S. Postal Service mascot Owney the Dog, a painting of Pocahontas, and the horrifying patent model for a “creeping baby doll” from 1871.

The Smithsonian is just the latest curator to upload pieces of its collection online. The Biodiversity Heritage Library recently uploaded 150,000 illustrations, the Paris Museums system uploaded more than 300,000 images, and the New York Public Library has been working to upload public domain books. But at more than 2.8 million images, all completely copyright free, the Smithsonian’s recent upload is the largest and most diverse offering of public domain art and cultural artifacts.