Smithsonian Places 4.5 Million Historic Images Into the Public Domain

Photograph of Harriet Tubman

Carte-de-visite portrait of Harriet Tubman by Benjamin F. Powelson (1868-1869)

We're used to museums and libraries releasing hundreds, if not thousands, of images into the public domain, but no other institution has made quite the same splash as the Smithsonian. The world's largest museum has added even more images from its collection to the public domain, totaling a whopping 4.5 million assets. Available on a platform called Smithsonian Open Access, anyone can download, reuse, and remix these images at any time—for free under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license.

The database pulls 2D and 3D images, as well as sound recordings and data sets, from the Smithsonian's 21 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo. The new additions to the initial 2.8 million assets mark a continuing release of information that opens up a wide range of possibilities for creators. With over 155 million items across all of its collections, the Smithsonian is continually digitizing and adding to the platform. While they are making these resources available, the museum technically disclaims any liability that the asset might have copyright considerations elsewhere or as yet unknown. These efforts are reaching the public: in the last quarter of 2022, 25.7 million assets on the database were viewed by the public.

The Smithsonian is encouraging people to get creative with its images, even asking people to share and tag their work with #SmithsonianOpenAccess. “Being a relevant source for people who are learning around the world is key to our mission,” shares Effie Kapsalis, who is heading up the effort as the Smithsonian’s senior digital program officer. “We can’t imagine what people are going to do with the collections. We’re prepared to be surprised.” Everyone from grad students to historians is jumping on the trend.

So what can you expect to find? A dive into the 3D records shows everything from CAD models of the Apollo 11 command module to Horatio Greenough's 1840 sculpture of George Washington. To facilitate that content for makers, the Smithsonian is also now on Sketchfab.

Other notable pieces entering into the public domain include a portrait of Pocahontas in the National Portrait Gallery, an image of the 1903 Wright Flyer from the National Air and Space Museum, and boxing headgear worn by Muhammad Ali from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

With so much to explore, what are you waiting for? And while you are at it, check out some of the remixes created using information from Smithsonian Open Access.

Check out some of the 4.5 million pieces of public domain material released by the Smithsonian.

Pocahontas Portrait

Pocahontas” copy after Simon van de Passe (after 1615).


Cathedral Window Quilt by Viola Canady.

See what creatives have done with this open-access material:


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Smithsonian Open Access: Website 
h/t: [DesignTAXI]

All images via Smithsonian Open Access.

This article has been edited and updated.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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