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Art food for thought

The Thinker, the Web site for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has the next best thing to a custom exhibit: a searchable database of 60,000 drawings, prints, engravings, and photographs.

Imagine your own museum. Naturally, you'd furnish it with your favorite things. Take horses, for instance. You may want a room full of horse pictures.

You might not get your own building, but the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's new Web site gives you the next best thing: a fully searchable database of 60,000 drawings, prints, engravings, and photographs.

You can search by subject matter, medium, artist, or all three and more if you like.

The Web site, dubbed The Thinker, hosts the entirety of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts and boasts to be the largest group of artwork on a single site.

Today, it's swamped with visitors, according to spokeswoman Kathleen Miller. Since National Public Radio featured the Web site this morning, anxious visitors have been jumping in to the virtual museum, Miller said.

The Fine Arts Museums is by no means alone. Hundreds, if not thousands, of museums and other institutions are making their collections virtually viewable with Web sites across the globe.

They range from small boutique galleries to famous collections, such as the Corbis archives. Corbis Corporation, a privately held company founded by Bill Gates in 1989, features a Web site with more than 4,000 digitally archived images in its collection of 800,000.

A general index of many museums and galleries can be found at World Wide Arts Resources.

The art, though, is sometimes limited to online viewing. Many archives such as Corbis's embed digital watermarks that prevent the work from being printed or duplicated; others include copyright notices. Many, such as The Thinker, have viewers click on an agreement saying they will not violate copyright laws by reproducing the work.

Ultimately, the Fine Arts Museums hope to display all their collections online.

"The California Palace of the Legion of Honor and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum collections are enormous," said Harry S. Parker III, director of museums. "We can exhibit only 3 to 4 percent of the collection at any one time, while the rest remains in storage. We're using the Internet to give everyone full access, to let them discover artwork they might not otherwise see."

Photos courtesy of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco