The best part? There are millions more to come.
Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega 5B airplane
Credit: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute

In early 2016, I was visiting a friend in Washington, D.C., and we decided to check out the National Museum of American History because it's free, and there are thousands of things to see (even for my friend who had been there multiple times). Out of all the exhibits, The First Ladies at the Smithsonian captured me. As someone interested in fashion, I loved learning about these key figures in history through their wardrobe choices. (Especially Dolley Madison's silk gown from the early 1800s that's hand-embroidered with flowers, butterflies, dragonflies, and phoenixes.) After that visit, I've often wished I could go back and see that display, and the others I walked through that day, without taking a trip to the nation's capital. Well, now you can see pieces from exhibits and other works of art from the Smithsonian without leaving home.

The Smithsonian Institution, which includes 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo, released 2.8 million images on February 25 for the public to view and download, all for free. "Being a relevant source for people who are learning around the world is key to our mission," Effie Kapsalis, Smithsonian's senior digital program officer, tells Smithsonian Magazine. "We can't imagine what people are going to do with the collections. We're prepared to be surprised."

The announcement comes after the organization implemented its digital-first strategy, which includes reaching 1 billion people per year. The publication notes that the Smithsonian isn't alone with this plan. More than 200 establishments around the world, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, are featuring their work online.

To access the Smithsonian's images, simply go to the Smithsonian Open Access website where you can browse 2D and 3d photos and documents. There is (obviously) a lot to go through. Still, a few particularly intriguing options include Garden Flowers by Edna Boies Hopkins, a color woodcut, and Farmers Home by Harry T. Peters, a lithograph on paper. You can also check out famous works such as a portrait of George Washington from 1796, a photograph of Harriet Tubman, and a photo of Amelia Earhart's flight suit as well as her red Lockheed 5B Vega airplane. Earhart holds a special place in my heart since she set two aviation records in the aircraft as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and the first woman to fly nonstop across the United States.

If you're thrilled about searching through the millions of files already available, you're in for some even more exciting news. According to the magazine, this first release is less than 2% of the Smithsonian Institute's total collection. The plan is also to release the majority of the 150 million-plus images eventually. Although a firm timeline isn't in place for everything, about 200,000 more records are expected to be uploaded on the website this year.

Just yesterday, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency for the city due to the coronavirus, and health officials requested that "nonessential mass gatherings" of 1,000 people or more be canceled, according to CNN. The Smithsonian also announced it is "postponing or canceling all public programs, events, and tours through May 3." This online catalog will likely be a saving grace for many people, including those who live in D.C. for the next few months.


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