Behind the walls of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, the museum’s chief digital officer takes a rare moment of rest at her desk, which is covered with a flurry of Post-it notes and to-do lists.
Courtney O’Callaghan sits near a small table with a couple of coffee mugs, a miniature Buddha sculpture and a bottle of champagne from New Year’s Day, when the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art celebrated the accomplishment of a 15-year-old goal: to make their digitized collections available online for the first time.
Last month, the museums released their entire collections of Asian and American art, which encompass over 40,000 works, including famed pieces like “The Peacock Room.” With the works online, the galleries hope to further the “democratization” of art by enabling more people than ever before to see their collections. The majority of the art that’s now available online has never reached gallery walls.
“We picked Jan. 1 and we said, ‘This is it. There’s no going back,’” O’Callaghan said. “Whatever we had, we’d put that up on Jan. 1.”
Though O’Callaghan said the push to digitize the collections began roughly a year and a half ago, the first move came in 2000, when the Freer and Sackler switched their archiving method from analog to digital.
From there, the first works were photographed and saved in digital form – pulled out every so often for use in publications or brochures.
“The first things were accidental,” O’Callaghan said. “We weren’t thinking about, ‘We’re going to digitize our entire collection.’ When we realized that we really wanted to push ahead on sharing our art and digitizing and democratizing how art is shared with the general world community, we made plans on what to shoot and when and how.”
But it was no simple project: Not only is the collection massive, but it also contains many pieces that are so old, enormous or delicate that they can be difficult to photograph.
When O’Callaghan was hired in 2013, the galleries still had thousands of images left to be carefully removed from storage, arranged, photographed and downloaded.
O’Callaghan said the project took more than 10,000 hours of work.
“It was like being handed a 3-year-old and being told, ‘Good luck,’” she said, laughing.
The process is lengthy and tedious – sometimes requiring 12-hour workdays. But O’Callaghan said through a digital platform called Open F|S, the Freer and Sackler hope to make tens of thousands of works available to people who otherwise might never visit a gallery.
“For us, it means that we are starting to bring down some of the walls that exist for anyone who wants to enjoy the pieces,” O’Callaghan said. “It means we are lowering the barriers of financial constraints, educational constraints, geographic constraints.”
On the Open F|S website, users are free to download any of the 40,000 images for non-commercial purposes in the highest resolution available.
O’Callaghan, who said she sees digitization as a form of “activism,” said the online works may spur new innovations or inspire new artists.
“We don’t know what it means when people will see it. Perhaps someone will see a shard of tile and they will feel emboldened to create something that had not occurred to them before,” she said. “Perhaps it will encourage them to do so many things we just can’t even imagine.”
The Freer and Sackler are the first of the Smithsonian Institution museums – and the first Asian art museums in the world – to make their collections available online, joining a growing trend toward digitization.
The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles released its first online collection in August 2013. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York followed suit with 400,000 online images in May 2014.
In D.C., the American Museum of History released 7,000 images last May, and the National Gallery of Art’s open access program has made over 45,000 images available online since 2012.
Now in its third year, open access has logged more than 1 million downloads.
Like the Freer and Sackler, the National Gallery’s images can be downloaded with a resolution of up to 4,000 pixels. But with open access, the art is free for all uses, even commercial.
Alan Newman, the head of digital imaging and visual resources at the National Gallery, said the free-use policy at open access adds another dimension to the democratization of art: the idea that, when possible, public viewing of art should not be limited due to copyright concerns.
“These are works that presume to be in the public domain. And what that means is that they belong to the people,” he said.
Like O’Callaghan, Newman thinks the digitization of art is a way to mitigate the disparity between those who have the ability to visit museums and those who do not.
“It’s not only digitization. What it really is is access,” Newman said. “If everybody has access to the same materials and is able in today’s world to publish and write about it, you have multiple voices and you do have democratization.”
The National Gallery’s head of digital imaging services, Peter Dueker, called the digital museum movement “Spotify for art.” He most frequently references the museum’s online archives while at his second job teaching black-and-white film photography at Catholic University.
“I know how hard it is for students and for teachers to get good quality images of works of art,” he said. “If you were learning how to paint or you’re learning the history of art, being able to sit at your computer and zoom in and see the brushstrokes and understand how it’s all constructed, that’s really amazing.”
The National Gallery has five studios where works of art are photographed for the open access website.
In one of those studios last week, much of the wall was covered by a metal easel, which Dueker said is computer-controlled and used to photograph each painting in sections. Later, the sections are stitched together, a process he called “mosaic.”
At a desk in the center of the room, museum photographer Gregory Williams sat editing a recently shot photograph of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers,” which he said he photographed in nine sections.
On the computer screen, the image served as an exact replica of the actual painting. Zooming into the photo, Williams pointed to microscopic cracks that sliced through the aging paint, and the curve of each brushstroke swelled on the screen, as if the artist had just completed the more than century-old painting.
“You want to go into the gallery and you want to study the art, so you’re standing in front of it and you can get to it in a certain extent,” Dueker said. “But [the digital version] allows you to look at it in a different way, so it’s all complementary.”
For both the National Gallery and the Freer and Sackler, these first digitized collections represent the beginning of an ongoing project.
Almost a month after the museum’s Jan. 1 release, O’Callaghan has yet to take more than a day off. Though the museum no longer has a 40,000-object backlog, O’Callaghan hopes to continue digitizing as the museum acquires new pieces, and to someday add 360-degree and three-dimensional views to the website.
“Anything we have that we have written, collected or done should really be out there for people to use and understand,” she said. “Our goal is increasing and diffusing knowledge throughout the world, and if that is your goal, this is at this moment the best way to do it.”