British Museum makes over half of its collection viewable online

Jon Fingas
Associate Editor
Lewis Chessmen (1150-1200) from Scotland

You can’t visit museums in person during pandemic lockdowns, but you might not have to for one of the most prestigious institutions. The British Museum has made (via Motherboard) images of more than half its collection (4.5 million objects) available online, with 1.9 million images available through a Creative Commons 4.0 license. You can not only browse the gallery, but use it however you like for non-commercial purposes. About 280,000 photos are being published for the first time, and you can now zoom into and pan images if you want to see every last nuance of an artifact.

The museum already has a number of legendary items available online, including the Rosetta Stone and the Sutton Hoo discoveries. This expansion adds items like a once-lost painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a Bronze Age pendant and a Easter Island sculpture (which Easter Island residents want returned).

This widened access had been planned for a while, the museum said, but had been moved forward due to COVID-19.

The digital collection won’t completely replace the experience of seeing historical items in person. It does, however, ensure that anyone with a decent internet connection can see much of what the museum has to offer without waiting for life to return to (semi) normal. The open photo license could also help the gallery reach a considerably wider audience, not to mention help teachers and students with their research.