8 of the most awesome images in the Smithsonian Open Access library

Home to no fewer than 19 museums, Washington DC's Smithsonian Institution has a vast collection of all kinds of art and historical artefacts. Over the last two years, it's been sharing digitised images of some of its treasures in a free open access online library that's now grown from 2.5m assets in 2020 to a massive 4.4m pieces including everything from postage stamps and portraits to 3D models. 

Considering the breadth of the Smithsonian's collections, there's something for everyone. As well as its museums, the Smithsonian is also home to the US National Zoo, nine research centres and vast archives (hence while it makes it to our pick of the best online art galleries) so everyone from artists to graphic designers and even scientists should find something of interest.

Everything in the Smithsonian Open Access bank can be freely downloaded, reused, remixed and distributed for personal or commercial under a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) licence (note that the institution can't guarantee that the pieces don't have other rights attached to them). 

If you're looking for inspiration, interesting material for a new project or just a photo your can turn into a meme, it's worth taking a look. Over four million images will take some time to browse, so here are some of our favourites so far to start with.

01. A lemur that deserves to be a meme

They said what? (Image credit: Smithsonian Institution)

As we mentioned, the Smithsonian is home to the US National Zoo, and wildlife enthusiasts will find plenty of photographs to enjoy in the Smithsonian Open Access bank. This cute shot of a black-and-white ruffed Lemur has to be one of the most meme-worthy.

02. A well-travelled dog

Owney doesn't look impressed at being made to sit for a painting (Image credit: Smithsonian Institution)

Sticking with animals, but this time a painting. Owney the dog was a kind of unofficial mascot for mail clerks in Washington, DC in the late 19th century and rode mail trains all over the US. The scruffy but much-loved canine picked up souvenirs on his travels, being rewarded with items ranging from baggage checks to tokens and medals. He was immortalised in this painting, which made it to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904.

03. A quilted window

Traditions collide in this colourful piece (Image credit: Smithsonian Institution)

The Open Access library provides plenty of resources that can serve as inspiration for everyone from graphic designers to crafters. We love the stained glass effect of Viola Canady's 'cathedral window quilt', which mixes brightly coloured African batik and prints in a matrix of black cloth. The piece is a tribute to the African American communities as well as quilting traditions.

04. A very creepy baby doll

An image from the Smithsonian Institution's free Open Access library

Wanna play? (Image credit: Smithsonian Institution)

As well as art and photography, the Smithsonian's museums house plenty of other kinds of historic artefacts, including some intriguing inventions. This has to be one of the scariest. The Creeping (or should it be 'Creepy') Baby Doll Patent Model demonstrates an invention patented by George Pemberton Clarke. Made out of plaster, the legs and arms are hinged to a brass clockwork body to imitate crawling while two toothed wheels move the doll along the ground.

05. A very different Pocahontas

An image from the Smithsonian Institution's free Open Access library

The Smithsonian Open Access library features many historic portraits (Image credit: Smithsonian Institution)

There are lots of historical portraits in the Smithsonian Open Access bank, but this one's particularly interesting. Based on a contemporary engraving, the portrait shows Pocahontas looking very different from Disney's later depiction of her but no doubt also very different from how she actually looked, portraying her as a rich Englishwoman before she died after being taken to England by the Virginia Company. It's an interesting example of how art has been used for propaganda and to twist reality long before AI came along.

06. Precolonial treasures

An image from the Smithsonian Institution's free Open Access library

Pendants from the National Museum of African Art (Image credit: Smithsonian Institution)

Going further back in time, the collections also include precolonial pieces of art such as these pendants created by the Lega society. The figurines represent Bwami proverbs and were used to designate the society's intellectual elite.

07. Treats for type fans

An image from the Smithsonian Institution's free Open Access library

Pin badges rules, OK? (Image credit: Smithsonian Institution)

Graphic designers and typography fans can find inspiration in the many posters, badges and other design items in the collection. This pin badge was created for a 1974 referendum campaign.

08. Trip to the moon

The Smithsonian Open Access library doesn't only have 2D images, it also includes 3D models that can be explored online or downloaded as full resolution 3D meshes. These include fascinating models of the Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia, which was the living quarters for Neil Armstrong, "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins during the first manned lunar landing in July 1969.

Looking for more design inspiration? Don't miss our choices of the best graphic design books. We've also made our pick of the famous buildings you should visit before you die.

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Joseph Foley

Joe is a regular freelance journalist and editor at Creative Bloq. He writes news and features, updates buying guides and keeps track of the best equipment for creatives, from monitors to accessories and office supplies. A writer and translator, he also works as a project manager at London and Buenos Aires-based design, production and branding agency Hermana Creatives, where he manages a team of designers, photographers and video editors who specialise in producing photography, video content, graphic design and collaterals for the hospitality sector. He enjoys photography, particularly nature photography, wellness and he dances Argentine tango.