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.