No museum keeps its whole collection on display. Meeting between Emperor Wen and Fisherman Lü Shang, 16th century, attributed to Kano Takanobu, is only available via the internet or if the Metropolitan will opens their vaults to us.
Yesterday I wrote about an articulated doll found in an ancient sarcophagus in 1964. This story recently made the rounds of the blogosphere, even though it is 40-year-old news. Some unknown blogger—an aficionado rather than an intellectual—recognized the spark of genius in that ivory doll and shared it with the world, where it caught the imagination.
In the 20th century, museums and galleries were able to tightly control their collections. Distribution of their slides was limited to ‘serious’ students: other museums, colleges, and professionals. If you were outside academic life, you learned about art and history through books and museum visits.
If the Roman occupation of Britain is your passion, you can browse the British Museum’s Mildenhall Treasure from your living room. You probably don't need a lecturer to tell you that's a spoon.
In 2000, sisters-in-law Olga and Helen Mataev started an online gallery of paintings by great artists. It was the first comprehensive online gallery and has since grown to 15,000 images. Nothing like it had been available before.
Wikipedia, launched in 2001, was a major engine for decentralizing art images. Today Wikiart (75,000 images) and online collections of major museums like the Metropolitan (400,000 images), are following suit.
Interested in the Great Chicago Fire? You can browse the Chicago History Museum’s collection of ephemera and find things like this leather fire marshal's helmet, circa 1870.
This decentralization of information is the most important movement of our time.