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Rare, Important Art Is Now Only a Click Away

Now everyone can view one of the world’s most important collection of Asian and American art. The Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Galleries of Art in Washington, D.C. have put their entire collection on the Internet.​

Art outside the box

The Freer and Sackler Galleries worked for over 15 years to photograph and make digital copies of more than 40,000 objects. The images are now released online. They include Chinese and Islamic art, as well as works from Persia, Egypt and parts of Asia. The online collection even includes works of art by American artist James McNeill Whistler.

Jan Stuart is a curator of Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. She praises the project to digitize the collection.

“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.”

Courtney O’Callaghan is the chief digital officer at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. She says the online objects have deep cultural and historical meaning. She says the museum wanted to be sure that anyone who wanted to see the works could.

“We’re hoping that small children, kids doing homework assignments, scholars who are unable to come to the Smithsonian, artists who are looking for inspiration, these are all target audiences.”

Digital art protects works

Courtney O'Callaghan notes another important result of digitizing the collection: protecting the invaluable treasures.

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

Online visitors sometimes see more details in an image than they can when they look at a piece in the museum. For example, many museum visitors struggle to examine the artwork in the famed Whistler Peacock Room because the light is kept low there. The low light helps protect the exhibit.

But in a digital panoramic view, online visitors can see the room in brighter light. They can closely look at the 250 ceramic objects Charles Lang Freer collected on his travels to Egypt, Iran, Japan, China and Korea.

A three-dimensional view

The museum also provides images of objects from every angle.

Ms. O'Callaghan says the three-dimensional, or 3-D, view has helped researchers. They can learn more about some ancient art by looking at it online than by studying the real piece. She says an important Chinese sculpture called Cosmic Buddha is a good example.

“Here is an amazing sculpture that has (a) 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 it has really helped scholars better understand the stories on it.”

Ms. O’Callaghan believes more museums will start making art available online. She says the Freer and Sackler Galleries plan to digitize every work of art they add to the collection in the coming years.

I’m Caty Weaver.

Julie Taboh reported this story from Washington, DC. Caty Weaver wrote it for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.


Words in This Story

viewn. the things that can be seen from a particular place

digitaladj. using or characterized by computer technology

panoramicadj. a full and wide view of something

sculpturen. a piece of art that is made by carving or molding clay, stone or metal

cosmicadj. of or relating to the universe or outer space

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