Publication Date

December 22, 2008



Image from the Flickr Commons, New York Public Library's collectionsNo matter who the society or where the location, there have always been pictorial representations of people, places, and things dating back centuries. These pictorial representations were brought to life in 1826 when Joseph Nicéphora Niépce burned a permanent image of a French landscape onto a chemically coated pewter plate using a camera obscura, more commonly known as a black room. Niépce’s first permanent photograph revolutionized the way societies document their world. Historians now have millions of photographs from around the world that are truly snapshots of the past.

Flickr, a web site that allows users to share their photographs and movies in a virtual medium, has various areas of exploration where users can browse through specific themes. One such area of exploration is The Commons, which functions much like individual Flickr accounts (where users post their multitude of media forms and share them with other users), but is made up of organizations (libraries, archives, and museums).

The Commons is unique because of its dedication to digitizing and disseminating historical photographs from around the world. As with many other digital history forms, The Commons encourages user participation, especially because historians are still in the process of researching the background on the photographs taken in the last 182 years. By digitizing them, however, The Commons allows users to both browse through thematically organized pictures and add captions if they see a person or place they recognize. The Commons brings to the table a whole new form for users to participate in and engage with history.

There are currently sixteen participating organizations in The Commons, many of which are museums creating a digital archive of photographs, paintings, artifacts, and movies. Read on for for descriptions of each.

In 1916, Charles Bean had the idea to create an Australian War Museum, which was carried out by John Treloar in 1917. The Australian War Memorial Collection archives paintings and photographs dating back to 1789.

Biblioteca de Arte-Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian has posted over 2,500 Portuguese photographs ranging from historical snapshots to art history to architecture.

The Bibliothèque de Toulouse, the French Public Library, hosts photographs taken by Eugene Trutat, former curator of the Museum of Natural History at Toulouse, that capture everything from sledding and farming to the French countryside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Other organizations use The Commons for both historic and artistic measures, such as The Brooklyn Museum, which “act[s] as a bridge between the rich artistic heritage of world cultures.” Their posted media spans from historical snapshots of train stations to modern art installations of graffiti. With over 3,000 items posted, users can take a more interactive approach to learning about the visual arts, both current and historic.

The George Eastman House, named after the founder of Eastman Kodak Company  (who was often called the father of photographyand inventor of motion picture film), archives important periods in the evolution of photography. As one of the oldest photography museums, the George Eastman House seeks to “inspire discovery and learning,” which they’ve brought to life on The Commons.

The Imperial War Museum is part of the United Kingdom’s National Archive that has 10 million pictures illustrating the cause-and-effect of modern conflict from 1850 through today. Currently, they have portraits from the early 20th century posted on The Commons.

The Library of Congress’ photographs date as far back as the early 1900s. They have posted photographs from the early half of the 20th century, consisting mainly of portraits and social events.

The Library of Virginia has chosen to post their Adolph B. Rice collection, which serves as a window into life in Richmond, Virginia, during the 1950s. The library hopes by posting this collection that Richmond locals will collaborate to help complete each photograph’s caption—again, the beauty of digital history.

The Canadian museum Musée McCord “reaches out to the world by exploring contemporary issues and engaging with communities at the local, national, and international level to further the appreciation and understanding of our heritage.” Their online collection includes historical and cultural photographs from the latter half of the 19th century to the early part of the 20th.

Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands collaborated with Spaarnestad Photo to post almost 500 photographs, a bulk of them dating from World War I.

Unlike other participating organizations on The Commons, The National Maritime Museum archives seaside photographs. Additionally, they have two groups, Sailor Chic and Beside the Seaside, which allow users to post recent photographs of “Maritime Britain.”

The same way Flickr has various themes users can search and browse through, the National Media Museum has thematically organized their photographs for both comedic effect and academic interest. Some themes include Snapping Dogs and Human Expressions.

The National Library of New Zealand has 120 photographs posted from the Alexander Turnbull Library, a research library within the national library. The online collections are grouped according to each photographer and coupled with a mini biography.

The Powerhouse Museum uploaded glass plate negatives from their Charles Kerry and Henry King collections, two major photography studios in Sydney, Australia, during the late 1850s through the late 1920s. The photographs document city and country life in Sydney.

Similar to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian has chosen images that span from one end of the scholarly spectrum to the other—from art to science. They have posted historic pictures organized around individual photographers and coupled them with modern pictures taken of historic artifacts.

One final organization is the State Library of New South Wales, which is known for  “Australian history, culture, and literature, including Aboriginal studies, Antarctic exploration, family history and genealogy, business and management, social sciences, applied science, biography, health, and law.” Their aim is to collect, preserve, and disseminate Australian history, which they do through their postings of photographs of Christmas in South New Wales, Armistice Day, and Aviation firsts, amongst others.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.