Photograph of Asian ceramic bowls

This article is also available in French and Japanese

The majority of web designers working today focus almost exclusively on the new and current, neglecting the vast depth of world cultural history. The result creates a “hall of mirrors” effect, with design trends echoing each other, and sites often repeating mistakes that were first encountered and solved in other media millennia ago.

Increasingly, museums are moving their collections online, making their physical appropriations digital and completely free for use and allowing designers easy access to the rich tapestry of design history for inspiration and content. Some of my favorite sources include:

The Smithsonian's Museums of Asian Art (the Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries), has just placed 40,000 digitized works from their Asian and America collection online as Open F|S. Images are high resolution, free of watermarks, and are free to use for non-commercial purposes.

Photograph of a shadowed woman with a black-and-white tribal tattoo on her backThe New York Public Library’s Digital Collection features almost a million objects categorized in every conceivable combination, including special collections for designers. Images are copyright-and-watermark-free and available in medium resolution. The British Library has gone directly to Flickr, which hosts more than a million images from its collection.

Wellcome Images is the largest repository of medical images in the world; most works are licensed under Creative Commons, with historical images available for immediate download. High-resolution contemporary images require a simple request.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has an archive of almost half a million digital records from its extensive collection, with more being added every day. The vast majority of works, marked “OASC” (“Open Access for Scholarly Content”) are licensed under the public domain, free to download and use at high resolution for non-commercial purposes.

Photograph of a Japanese long and short sword
Photograph of a Japanese kantana and wakizashi, from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection

The Met, NY Public Library and Rijksmuseum have also placed significant portions of their collections online under Creative Commons licenses. You can use the Creative Commons beta search tool to search all of them, plus more resources., an imagery archive has placed its satellite imagery of California online for open access, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA).

The Victoria and Albert Museum has almost a million images from its collection available, available through a curious and quintessentially English download process.

Finally, I could not complete this list without mentioning the fact that the national museum of my home country of New Zealand has placed 40,000 images from its collection online in high resolution, making them free for use.

Header image courtesy of the Freer Sackler Gallery

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