The Vast Treasures of the Met Now Available in the Public Domain

Artwork: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bashi-Bazouk, 1868-69 (detail). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On Tuesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, made about 375,000 public-domain images available for commercial and scholarly use through Open Access for anyone with a Creative Commons Zero license. This policy, which introduces partnerships with Wikimedia, Artstor, the Digital Public Library of America, Art Resource, and Pinterest, allows people from all walks of life free use of a vast range of digital images and data in from The Met’s vast history, collection, exhibitions, events, people, and activities.

Also: Welcome to the Public Domain, a Wondrous World of the Brilliant & the Absurd

Although the initiative was considered controversial when it was first introduced, as society continues to adapt itself to a digital interface, the movement to digitize and share works in the public domain has made major leaps and strides, recognizing that the open content movement is a necessity of modern life.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Tiffany Studios, Hibiscus and Parrots (circa 1910–20). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

With this move to make materials freely available to the public The Met joins other major institutions across the world, including the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York; Copenhagen’s National Gallery of Denmark Statens Museum for Kunst; and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

The works available online are drawn from more than 5,000 years of global art, spanning the range of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, film, and multimedia. Among the many gems available for free use are the famous “Unicorn Tapestries” housed at The Cloisters, Nadar photographs, El Greco’s seminal 17th century painting, The Vision of Saint John, Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, John Singer Sargent’s infamous 1883-4 painting, Madame X, and Vincent Van Gogh’s 1889 painting, Wheat Fields, made the year before his death.

Egyptian, Fragmentary Head of a Queen, 1352-1356 B.C.E. Image provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The move to release works in the public domain comes just a couple of days after The New York Times asked, “Is the Met Museum ‘a Great Institution in Decline’?” In the story, journalist Robin Pogrebin discussed the challenges of the museum as it faced a $40 million deficit, buyouts and layoffs for some 90 employees, and an expansion with the MetBreur that went millions of dollars over projections.

Despite the article’s warnings of business troubles, the Met remains the premier institution for fine art worldwide. The struggles of the institution reflect the larger challenges of the art world in a time when the purpose of museums is transforming to keep up with the demands of life in an increasingly digital realm. To that end, the move to make their holdings freely available for public use is a strong step to increasing the contemporary relevance of the work that have done since they first opened their doors on Fifth Avenue in 1872.

The Unicorn in Captivity (from the “Unicorn Tapestries”), 1495–1505. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.