a colorful background with the words create imagine, discovery, and smithsonian open access.

The Smithsonian has released 4.5 million High-Res Images for free use

News | By Stephan Jukic | Last Updated: April 21, 2023

For creatives, historical hobbyists or anyone with an interest in the visual history of humanity, the Smithsonian’s Open Access archive is a gold mine.

The Smithsonian Institution has the promotion of arts and sciences as one of its primary mission goals, and its most recent digitization efforts are a powerful example of this.

The organization has recently added hundreds of thousands of new 2D and 3D visual documents and photos to its online Open Access archive.

As its name makes obvious, this database of historical and artistically notable photos and other visuals is available for use to anyone, and its contents are entirely public domain.

The Open Access archive was originally unveiled in February 2020 as a new digital tool for broad public use. Its original trove contained roughly 2.8 million free images and other media.

Now, however, it has been further expanded to a total of over 4.5 million files and will keep expanding periodically according to the Smithsonian.

a portrait of a woman in a red and green dress.

This massive trove of freely available digitized media may be huge, but it represents just a tiny fraction of the over 155 million items in the Smithsonian’s entire series of collections.

Among these 4.5 million digitized Open Access files are millions of photos, 3D visuals, sound recordings and other digitized items.

a poster with a hand and a picture of a woman.


Just to clarify, with 3D visuals, we’re referring specifically to 3D records that include things such as the CAD models for the Apollo 11 command module, and detailed 3D representations of famous historical sculptures.

The sheer quantity and diversity of different media available in Open Access offer an enormous range of possible uses and remixes for creators of all kinds, including photographers and other visual artists.

Here are some examples already created by different organizations. Also, here are others by individual artists sharing through Instagram:


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Isaac W. (@fantasticmr.wood)



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A post shared by The Puzzled Co (@thepuzzledco)


Overall, the vast publicly available, freely usable collection of items in the Open Access collection is a fascinating tool for exploring the deeply colorful accumulation of humanity’s cultural history.

Moreover, it’s also extremely useful as a source of inspiration and literal visual resources for artistic and educative endeavors of all kinds.

It’s worth repeating that this entire archive is entirely open for free use by anyone. As the Smithsonian itself explained in its original announcement of the Open Access archive:

“Previously, the Smithsonian made more than 4.7 million collection images available online for personal, non-commercial and educational use. Now, with Smithsonian Open Access, nearly 3 million of those images carry a Creative Commons Zero designation, which waives the Institution’s copyright and permits a greater variety of uses, both commercial and non-commercial, without the need for Smithsonian permission or payment.”

If you’re a photographer, fine art photographer, or mixed media artist of any kind, this archive is an absolute gold mine of usable material. It’s definitely worth exploring, even if out of sheer curiosity.

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