an assortment of political pushpin buttons along a timeline

Looking Ahead: One Year of Smithsonian Open Access

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March 5, 2021

Effie Kapsalis is the Senior Digital Program Officer at the Smithsonian and led the strategy and implementation of Smithsonian Open Access​

Just over a year ago, we launched 2.8 million 2D and 3D images and data from the Smithsonian’s 173-year-old history into the public domain. We did this to make good on the Smithsonian’s mission—“for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” We hoped that by making these collections available for easy, individual download, as well as at-scale access via our API, we would allow people everywhere to make discoveries, build new knowledge, and to develop new art and creative projects to help us see the world a little differently.

We were not disappointed. We saw individuals producing film, writing poetry, making student projects, and creating data visualizations. We saw U.S. Senators using the API to present images of their home state to their constituents, corporations like Google enhancing their Arts and Culture program, and open knowledge organizations like Creative Commons making Smithsonian images a part of their open ecosystem. It was truly inspiring and helped us see the collections we steward a little differently.

We did not plan to launch Smithsonian Open Access three weeks before a global pandemic, one that made the racial, socioeconomic, and gender inequities more acute in the U.S. The Information Age has not turned out to be the great equalizer of information access as originally envisioned. As we look to the next phases of Smithsonian Open Access, it’s imperative to reflect on how open, open cultural heritage really is.

  • As an institution founded in 1846, who is left out of the Smithsonian’s ‘canon’?
  • With digital as the main way to access education and information during an international crisis, who are we leaving out?

It is through this lens that we are framing the next phases of Smithsonian Open Access. The Smithsonian is rich in experts and resources related to marginalized communities across the U.S. With our cultural centers and new newly legislated Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum and National Museum of the American Latino, we can enhance the data across our nineteen museums, libraries, and archives with new stories of marginalized communities. We can frame dated language and stereotypes found in our data with educational material to increase our understanding of cultures and race. We can also work with community stakeholders to refine our Open Access Values Statement and how that translates into the Smithsonian’s operations and workflows around digitized collections.

This is not something that will happen in a year and ‘best practices’ we define today will likely be outdated shortly thereafter, however it is critical that we increase and diffuse resources that represent multiple people and experiences. The challenge for us now is to make ‘open’ also equitable.


* Header image: "Pushing Buttons: Exploring the NMAAHC through Political Badges," by Amina Brown. This project by Parsons School of Design data visualization student, Amina Brown, investigates the collection of pinback buttons in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The buttons are displayed on a timeline to show the visual impact they have and how political and social justice movements have used the medium from the mid-1950s on.