More than 40,000 images from the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries — most of them never seen by the public in modern times — are newly available online, thanks to a massive digitization effort by the 91-year-old museum.
There are paper fans. Elaborate woodblock prints. A pair of 3,000-year-old bronze tigers, which the museum’s chief digital officer calls her favorite objects in the museum. All told, there are 40,691 images from the Smithsonian’s Asian Art museums, most of them prints and ceramics. As museum director Julian Raby told The Post in December, it’s “part of the democratization of art.”
It’s also, incidentally, part of a larger movement to get museum catalogs digitized and online, where researchers (and the curious public) can view them more easily. Last May, both the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art digitized large chunks of their collections, putting up more than 400,000 images for free, non-commercial use — including works by Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and John Singer Sargent.
It’s a worthwhile task, given the value of these collections — and the fact that, at most museums, the bulk of said collections are kept in storage. (Of the pieces digitized by Freer and Sackler, for instance, 78 percent have never been displayed — at least not “in living memory,” a Smithsonian spokesperson said.)
Unfortunately, the difficulty of digitization has kept many museums from “democratizing” art very extensively — this is, after all, a pretty tricky process. Pieces must be photographed in careful, color-controlled settings; the photos must be uploaded to databases; the whole thing has to be tagged and key-worded and organized so that people can actually use it. At the Freer and Sackler galleries, the process took a team of 54 people something like 10,000 hours.
It’s worth it, without doubt, but it’s also easy to see why none of the other Smithsonian museums has digitized their entire collections yet.
You can view more pieces from the newly digitized collections at open.asia.si.edu.