13 million historical photographs searchable online

Not quite yet, but the Smithsonian is working on consolidating their massive collection of photographs spread across 19 museums in 700 archives and special collections with the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.

It features a search engine that will eventually give visitors access to all the photographs in the collection, as well as offer curated exhibitions, public forums and educational programming.

Until now, a search for pictures of the 19th-century American West by William Henry Jackson, say, would lead a scholar on a scavenger hunt through the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Even then, the process might yield only a fraction of the Jackson images held by the Smithsonian.

“The site is first and foremost dedicated to making the institution’s photography collections more accessible and visible to the public,” said Merry A. Foresta, director of the project and former senior curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution. “We’re not there yet, but hopefully soon you will be able to search on ‘Native American’ and find collections in Natural History and Anthropology, the National Portrait Gallery, American History, American Art, Air and Space and, of course, the National Museum of the American Indian.”

It’s a cool site already, and not just because there are thousands of beautiful and historically significant pictures to browse, but also because of the essays and commentaries from photographers, curators, even Hugh Hefner.