Smithsonian’s Asian art galleries to debut digitized collection

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery plans to release digitized versions of its 40,000-piece collection.

The Chinese jade jewelry, ancient glazed pottery from Egypt and 40,000 other pieces that make up the collection at the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art will be available online in the new year.

The public has never seen the vast majority of Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s collection, organizers said. But through this new portal, researchers and the public would be able to access these rare artifacts by just logging on. According to a release by the Smithsonian Institution, 90 percent of the images will be high resolution and without any copyright restrictions.

The database, which will be available at, contains 10 terabytes of data and 50,000 images. The galleries are the first Smithsonian museums to digitize and release their entire collection.

It was a laborious 15-year process to complete the project, Courtney O’Callaghan, chief digital officer at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, told FedScoop.



“One of the reasons this was such just an amazing feat is we had to make sure that we had time not only with our photographers but time with all of our art handlers so that every object was moved in the way that was safest,” she said.

Some days, the galleries could take hundreds of pictures of artifacts. But the more difficult-to-handle pieces — the ones that were so delicate or so unwieldy that they might never be exhibited or available for scholars to see — might take all day to photograph. “Our last 30 were what we called our problem children,” O’Callaghan said.

Some of the galleries’ giant carpets took several people to roll out. Then, photographers had to set their equipment up on ladders to photograph the entire object.

“You have all these concerns you have to look at,” O’Callaghan said. “And you have to make sure you’re not taking any short cuts. And we didn’t.”


While shooting each artifact, museum staffers worked to merge the digital images with searchable metadata.

Once the high-resolution image is shot, it goes into Smithsonian’s Digital Asset Management System, or DAMS, an internal cloud system. The image is matched up with a collections management software used my many museums worldwide, called The Museum System, or TMS. TMS has all of the museum’s information about the object — including when it’s been on exhibit, what medium it is and what era it’s from.

“We wanted to make sure the information could talk to each other,” she said. She said a large portion of the TMS information will be available online when the system launches.

In a
blog post about the project, O’Callaghan said it’s only the beginning.

“As we move from the idea of museums as spaces for the static delivery of a monolithic point of view into ones where our objects inspire communal storytelling, and where we share diverse perspectives that are alive and changing, we will be able to engage our visitors in ways that we cannot yet imagine,” she wrote.


But as the site debuts, O’Callaghan said she’s excited to find out who uses the site.

“I think the audience that is possible is really varied,” she said. “We hope that teachers will use it and students and artists who are looking for inspiration.”

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