Online Research and Digital Collections

Ceramic vessel from Iran, Chalcolithic period (5000 - 3500 B.C.E.). Freer Gallery of Art accession number S1998.184.

Ceramic vessel from Chalcolithic period Iran, 5000 – 3500 B.C.E. (Freer Gallery of Art accession number S1998.184).

The New Year has already brought some big news from the world of museums and archaeology. On January 1, 2015 the Smithsonian quietly released a digital collection of some 40,000 artworks from the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The image database includes fantastic pieces of ancient art from Egypt, the Near East, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, as well as a collection of American works from 1855–1919.

Museums and universities throughout the world have been gradually digitizing their collections for years, and many of these image libraries can now be accessed through online searches (for example, see The British Museum, the Louvre, the Canadian Museum of History, and Wake Forest University’s Museum of Anthropology).  What makes the release of Freer and Sackler materials by the Smithsonian so remarkable is that it is the first time (we’re aware of) that an entire collection has been made available in high-resolution for free for non-commercial use. According to the Washington Post, the Smithsonian eventually plans to host 360-degree renderings of materials from their collection.

Here in Tennessee, the University of Tennessee Libraries and McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture were early adopters of the digital collections model. Beginning in 2002 with the assistance of a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, they digitized an extensive archive of photographs from WPA archaeological excavations conducted prior to TVA dam construction in the 1930s.

Mississippian effigy hooded water bottle from Monroe County, Tennessee (National Museum of American History catalog # A115559-0)

Mississippian effigy hooded water bottle from Monroe County, Tennessee (National Museum of American History catalog # A115559-0)

There are also several collections of archaeological materials from Tennessee that are curated out of state but searchable via online databases. The collections database of the National Museum of Natural History contains some 203,000 digital images from their Archaeology, Ethnology and Physical Anthropology Collections. These include at least 121 items originating in Tennessee. The National Museum of the American Indian also provides images of items from Tennessee including those from the collections of Joseph Jones and William E. Meyer. Finally, a search of the online collections of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard returns 4,600 results for items from Tennessee, although only some records have accompanying images.

In addition to images of artifacts, researchers who do not have privileges at university libraries now enjoy unprecedented access to ethnographies, historic documents, and primary source materials via the internet. Research gateways of course include Google Books and, but also sites such as the Tennessee Virtual Archive, the Smithsonian’s Biodiversity Library and Contributions to Anthropology, UNC’s Documenting the American South project, American Journeys from the Wisconsin Historical Society, the American Memory project at the Library of Congress, the Combined Arms Research Library, and the Digital Public Library of America. Thanks to the internet and the good work of museums and libraries we’re now living in a golden age of collections research. Happy 2015!