The Google Art Project: Your One-Stop Museum, Without Having To Exit Through A Museum Shop

Google actively encourages employees to take off one day a week to be totally creative, to work on something of their own. This has resulted in some of the web’s most frequently used tools, including Gmail and Google News. But the latest project is not quite so productive, but a lot more fun – The Google Art Project. Earlier this month, Google unveiled its latest digitization project, bringing many of the masterpieces of Western art to the internet.

Bravo to doing anything at all in order to make fine art less exclusive. It will only thrive by being anything but the preserve of the powerful and wealthy alone. Like the themes they explore, masterpieces are a universal experience.

One employee, Amit Sood, has dedicated more than just one day a week to opening the great galleries of the world to the world. Working with the “Street View” imaging technology, the Google Art Project team has spent 18 months gathering images of selected museums. As a result, anyone with an internet connection (and flash software) can now visit some of the world’s finest art collections, including: New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, and Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia.

As well as capturing high-resolution images of 1,061 artworks, the team asked 17 museums to select one artwork to be photographed using super high resolution or “gigapixel” photo-capturing technology. The microscopic detail delivered by these 7 billion pixel images is breathtaking, allowing for an unparalleled view of works like Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom.” With the Google Art Project, I can actually get close enough (by zooming in) to see the art on a level that was previously impossible. I can now get intimate with Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” in a way that won’t set off a silent alarm or get me tackled by a museum guard. For me, these 17 paintings are the most captivating element of the Project, and it’s worth taking the time to pour over them slowly, investigating every brush stroke that the artist made, and appreciating the craquelure that only acquires over time.

You’ll hear a lot of talk about how the Google Art Project doesn’t replace the museum-going experience. These purists are mostly correct, of course. For one thing, the digital tourist loses all sense of perspective. On the other hand, being able to view digitized copies of the world’s greatest art at your own pace, is not the same experience as slogging through a crowded, expensive museum (that is usually closed on my day off) – not necessarily a bad thing. Hopefully the project will continue to grow by enabling art-lovers to view some of the vast amount of art owned by museums that sits in constant storage.

No, it’s no substitute for “the real thing.” After using it for a period of time (which is the real test, isn’t it?), one begins to suspect that the designed of the site may have more computer DNA than human. It is sprawling, alright, but can it really take you to the mysterious places that you don’t even know you want to go? It misses altogether the pleasure of museum exploration. An eye needs to lead through a space until it finds the view that speaks to the heart. Try putting “surprise me” into a search engine.

But for art-lovers who can’t make it to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum for the afternoon deserve the chance to see what’s there. It may not be three-dimensional, but a 7-billion-pixel digitized image almost makes up for that.

Almost. While I am in awe of Goggle’s potential for furthering the cause of democracy via technology (something still very much only a dream here in the U.S.A.), let’s hope this version is just the beginning. The list as it stands now is limited. Not only are several great institutions missing (where are the Prado of Madrid, or the Vatican of Rome?), but so are most of the more exciting

The Google Art Project is not necessarily a bad thing… at least at the present stage. My only concern is that this experiment will turn into just another money making proposition for Google, if, in the future, the site offers to add private galleries to the list for a fee. In the worst case scenario, Google will have succeeded in limiting the number of actual visitors to museums, while making a profit off of the siphoning off of these viewers. In the end, Google could end up with far too much control over what is viewed online. If a person sees something online they like, there is a better chance they will want to see it person. On the other hand it may turn to “pay to show” like so much in today’s marketed internet world.

Still, Google has a revolutionary achievement here. Admission fees and lines are no longer an excuse; the world’s great masterpieces and galleries are now just a click away. So, for now, save the price of admission at The Met… and put that money towards the cost of a transatlantic flights to witness the beauty of, say, the Biennale Exhibition in Venice firsthand. Some things, like the extraordinary event in the City of Canals’ Arsenale and the Giardini, have to be seen in 360 degrees.

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