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Freer-Sackler Digitization Project: A Modest Suggestion

The other day, the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian announced that it had digitized its entire collection and was putting it all online for all to see and use–with more than 90 percent of the images in high-definition resolution and without copyright restrictions for noncommercial uses–as of Jan. 1, 2015. This is good news, and I applaud the initiative.

TextileCapture-1But another sentence in the press release stopped me: “The vast majority of the 40,000 artworks have never before been seen by the public…”

Now, I know full well that many museums own works whose quality isn’t up to par–and they should not displace better works, just to be shown. I am also fully aware that some museums keep works for study–and the Freer-Sackler is one of them. The release says there are more than 10,000 items in the Freer Stufy Collection, including multiple pages of certain manuscripts, textile fragments and the like. This collection is “used by scholars around the world for scientific research and reference.” I tend to like the open storage areas some museums are using for some collections, though I have no information about what the public thinks about them.

But I think museum should make use of some items they “never” show. Are any lendable to smaller museums? Could any be pulled into a small touring exhibition? If so, museums should do these things.

And if not, why not devote a small area–even one case or one small wall–for a rotating showing of artworks that are “never” shown? Maybe these items could be paired with something similar that is worthy of hanging in the galleries. Would that help teach the public some connoisseurship?  It might even prove enlightening about deaccessioning.

Museums have become so creative at trying new things, they seem to say to us. How about trying something with works in their storeroom? Maybe they would even turn up some wonderful. There’ve been a lot of cases like that in recent years.

Photo Credit: Hutomo Wicaksono /Freer and Sackler Galleries


  1. You are 100 percent correct. Open storage when I’ve seen it has been fascinating and informative.

  2. M. F. Sibley says

    I had a relative who was a curator in the Asian division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City some years back. She informed me that the holdings of artworks, in that section alone, had never been seen by the general public and probably never would be.

    While it is wonderful to be the owner of such vast holdings, it is also selfish to never allow them to see the light of day because they may not fit into the scheme of things (i.e. future exhibits, wall space, etc.). Why couldn’t things be rotated every so often or loaned out as the article above suggests? I rotate the art in my own home which includes 18th, 19th and early 20th century original Japanese prints, along with 18th and 19th century American samplers. It always feels like I’m seeing something new. Museum goers could feel the same way.

    • I wouldn’t want to speak for the Met, but I have been told by curators there that the vast majority of objects in the storeroom are not museum quality. That’s why they’re not rotated into regular exhibition space. Some should never have been accepted into the collection; some are good for study. But my proposal would seek to use these kind of items in an instructive way–illustrating why they are not good enough and/or why they might be sold. A problem, of course, is embarrassment to the donor.

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