One of the world’s most important holdings of Asian and American art is now online, giving anyone with an Internet connection unprecedented access to the entire collection of the Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Galleries of Art.

The vast majority of the works in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museums of Asian Art has never been seen by the public before, and can now be downloaded - in many cases for free - with some of the most popular images available for download as free mobile backgrounds, desktop wallpapers and social media headers.

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Art Outside the Box

It took 15 years to photograph and digitize the more than 40,000 objects that have been released online. They include Chinese ceramics and Islamic art, masterworks from Persia, objects from Egypt and around Asia - and even works of art by American-born artist James McNeill Whistler.

The objects have deep cultural and historical significance, according to Courtney O’Callaghan, chief digital officer at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. She says it was very important to the museum that they be accessible to anyone who wants to see them.

“Small children, kids doing homework assignments, scholars who are unable to come to the Smithsonian, artists who are looking for inspiration,” are among the examples of people who could benefit from viewing art online she pointed out.

“The digital really helps democratize the art and allows people from around the world to enjoy it,” she added.

Benefits of digital art

Jan Stuart, Melvin. R. Seiden curator of Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, agrees, calling the project to digitize the entire collection "absolutely, overwhelmingly wonderful.”

“Because what it means is that any person, whether they are simply an art lover or they are actually doing research for any kind of project - it could be an academic project or it could be research because you’re an interior designer and you’re trying to look for patterns - it means that this resource that we hold here, is available,” she explained.
“It's starting something that’s going to accelerate research as well as just please everybody who loves beauty, who’s interested in history, who’s interested in civilization.”

O'Callaghan points to another benefit of digitizing the collection: conservation of the delicate treasures.

“It allowed us to gather these beautiful, high resolution images of objects so that we don’t have to bring them out again,” she said. “We don’t have to touch them.”

Those high resolution images can also bring hidden details to light. When viewed in person for example, it’s difficult to closely examine the intricate artwork on display in James McNeill Whistler’s famed Peacock Room due to the low lighting conditions that help preserve the exhibit.

But in a digital panoramic view, the room is seen with highlights of the more than 250 ceramics that museum founder Charles Lang Freer collected on his travels to Egypt, Iran, Japan, China and Korea.

The museum also captured objects in three dimensions, from every angle.

Pointing to a revered Chinese sculpture called Cosmic Buddha, O'Callaghan explained, "Here is an amazing sculpture that has very detailed relief pattern on it that is very hard to see with the naked eye, and with using 3-D not only are people able to see all around this object, but they’re able to change the lighting and change the color and actually see things that are almost impossible to see in real life.”

“In fact, our 3-D of the Cosmic Buddha has really helped scholars better understand the stories on it, and that was not something we expected to get out of this,” she added.

O’Callaghan believes making art accessible online will be a growing trend for museums, and says the galleries plan to digitize every work of art added to the collection in the coming years.