This blog post and comments on it were incorporated in an article of the same name for Curator 54:2 and is available online at http://www.curatorjournal.org/archives/635
Google launched its Art Project in partnership with 17 museums from Europe and the US on Feb 1, 2011, and I had the pleasure of attending the event after working with them on the Smithsonian’s participation in the project. Although ‘new born’ with much development still to come in its future, I think we can already see some of the important implications that Google Art has for changing how museums use the web, and I’d like to outline them here and get feedback towards a longer article that will come out in an upcoming print edition of Curator Journal:
- The gigapixel scans enable a kind of encounter with the art that is not even possible in the galleries. As Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, recognized, the ability to engage with the work of art in this way transforms the web experience from an informational one to an emotive one. High definition/high resolution video and images are a good example of how the web and digital media can be used to complement, rather than imitate, the encounter with the artwork in the gallery.
- Image recognition may just be the answer to how we’ll deliver location-based services in museums. These can be based on a combination of panoramas (Street View or Photosynth or other: may the best technology win!); image recognition à la Google Goggles; and OCR of labels. Lost in the Louvre? Stop, look around with your phone’s camera, and it will recognize where you are and show you your location on a map.
- Museums will collaborate more on the web: sharing content, links, and enriching each others’ online experiences; however, for this to be workable, we need a technology solution that makes our content “phone home” so we can accurately track traffic to our assets, and also a cross-platform CMS that allows us to manage our content on multiple sites and platforms, both those under our control and not, from a single central point.
- MAYBE we’ll get Google maps of the interiors of museums from this, and our visitors can enjoy a consistency of interface and quality from museum maps that is not possible today.
Luc Vincent is director of engineering at Google and in charge of the team that did the Street View captures in the museums. At the Google Art Project launch, I asked him about the technical challenges they had faced, and he outlined their plans to upgrade their panorama cameras, particularly in terms of aperture control, in future iterations to achieve a more consistent quality throughout the interior spaces. Collaborating with the museums’ lighting and photography teams will also be critical to getting the best possible results. But perhaps the biggest challenge is copyright on the artworks: the Street View cameras have to avoid capturing works in the galleries that had copyright restrictions, or blur them out in the final product.
As Jane Burton, Creative Director of Tate Media and another participant in the project pointed out, being restricted to artworks with no copyright restrictions in the Google Art Project and elsewhere online gives a limited impression of what “Art” is to online visitors. Nelson Mattos, VP of Engineering at Google, said the Art Project site would allow children in developing nations to learn about art in museums that they may never to be able to visit in person. But are we able to show them the art that they will find most engaging or meaningful and relevant to their lives? Unless the artist is living, like Chris Ofili, and willing to give permission for the work to be displayed online like this, it is very difficult and expensive to negotiate the rights to represent art other than older art which tends to represent a very specific canon in western museums.
I have been bemused by some who have criticized the Google Art Project for not having more museums and artworks represented. In addition to the copyright impediments, working with museums is notoriously slow and difficult: getting 17 of the world’s biggest museums on board with the same project is an incredible achievement, especially given the legal and staff time costs involved. But as I argued in response to Ed Rothstein’s critique of New York museum apps – complaining about a digital product because it hasn’t got enough content is a “buy signal”: the critics love the concept, they just want more. This is a problem I think we can live with and address over time!
Nicholas Serota made a compelling prediction on this point: he noted that the first generation of museums on the web was about quantity of information and getting as many objects on line as possible. Now we are seeing the beginning of a second generation of museums on the web, where our focus will be on providing depth and quality of content. Google Art is an important early step in this direction.
The surprise to Google from the initial traffic was how many people used the collecting feature: they had to add servers to support this feature immediately after launch. I was amazed as well: collecting tools have been on museum websites for a long time, and to my knowledge have never had particularly high use. Why might creating your own collection of artworks be such a big draw in Google Art: is it simply because of the huge audience Google can pull? Is it because you can create a collection across a number of institutions’ collections? Or is it that the high resolution zoom does exactly what Julian Raby said: it creates a more emotional connection with the artwork, so we are more compelled to “collect” and hang on to it? There is a bit of anecdotal evidence to support the latter: apparently what people are collecting is not what you might expect, not following any clear pattern or theme. Maybe those collections reflect the circuitous logic of what people love, rather than (just) what they want to learn.
What I’m most intrigued by is the way that the gigapixel images underscore the importance and centrality of the original object. Yes, you can find some high resolution images of many of these artworks online already, but if not taken by the museum, they have been scanned from catalogues and other print reproductions. As such they are inherently limited: ultimately you will zoom in to paper textures or simply stop. Without access to the painting, the level of detail presented in the Google Art Project can’t be achieved. By the same token, photographing at this quality is no small or cheap effort and certainly not something that can be achieved for large percentages of our collections in the near term. This is food for thought as museums think about their evolving business models and relationships with partners like Google and others.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on this initiative and the issues it raises and hope you’ll leave them in the comments here!
Here are a couple of other useful blog posts on the project:
– Nancy Proctor, Digital Editor and Head of Mobile Strategy & Initiatives, Smithsonian Institution