Google Art Project

Ana Olivier

In recent years, the changes brought about by technology have come at a fast and furious pace. Keeping abreast of these changes, new software, and new tools and resources has proved to be challenging and as a result, some of these technologies have not reached their full potential in the education environment. Whether it is in a classroom, academic library, public library, or even in the comfort of our homes, these technological resources can be used to expose us “students” to information, ideas, music, cultural experiences, and images that, even as recent as a decade ago, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience. An example of one of these resources is the Google Art Project.
The Google Art Project is very new. It started development in 2009 and officially launched on February 1, 2011. According to the head of the Google Art Project, Amit Sood, it began when a few Google employees, who also happened to be art enthusiasts, started wondering how they could help museums make their art more accessible to everyone (Sood, 2011). The end product they came up with, which can be accessed at, provides access to over 1,000 works of art from 17 different museums from around the world. However, the project includes much more than images of famous art. It allows users to get more of the museum-going experience by allowing them to take a virtual tour of the facilities, read background information about the art and artist, and even create personal art collections.
In 2009, Google executives contacted officials at several different museums inviting them to be a part of Google Art Project. Some of the 17 museums that agreed to collaborate with Google include the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Tate Britain and the National Gallery in London, the State Hermitage Museum in St.Petersburg, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (Blog). The museums involved were responsible for choosing which pieces of art would be included (Berwick, 2011). All of the images of the artwork are available in high resolution, but each museum chose a specific piece of art to be photographed in super-high resolution. Gigapixel photography technology was used that resulted in images that are 1,000 times more detailed than an average camera and contain approximately 7 billion pixels. A specially designed microscope view uses Google’s image viewer, Picasa, to display these works of art at this extremely high resolution (Pack, 2011).
Google Art also used another of Google’s pre-existing technologies, the Street View, and re-adapted it to be used inside the galleries. Google engineers developed a push-able cart that housed all the equipment needed to bring the street view inside. It included a panoramic camera, lasers used to capture the distances to walls, motion sensors to track the position of the cart, a hard drive for data and a laptop to operate the system. The data gathered was synced with Google Maps making it possible to actually enter the museums by searching for them on a Google map and then view the available collections. It also allows users to “enter” the museum from the street and, once inside, “walk” down halls and in galleries utilizing a 360-degree view to get a comprehensive idea of what it would be like to visit the museum in person. Once inside, Google Maps allows you to view a layout of the museum and its galleries and move from one room or floor to another (Siegel, 2011).
Another component of the Google Art Project allows users to explore information about the artwork as well as the artist. Once a specific piece of art is chosen to view, an information bar appears at the right. It provides the title, date, artist, medium, dimensions, and location in the gallery. It gives the user the option to view notes about the art, additional artwork information, artist information, and the history of the piece of art. It allows the user to link to further information on the Gallery’s web site, search for information on Google Scholar, and occasionally provides YouTube videos of lectures done at the museum pertaining to the art. It also provides links to other works by the artist and other works in that specific museum.
Finally, the project includes social networking and Web 2.0 opportunities. Once a piece of art is chosen, Google provides the option to share the artwork page through email, Google Buzz, Facebook, or Twitter. In addition, if the user has a Google account, he is able to create a personal art collection made up of art from multiple museums and collections. The user also has the option to magnify specific areas of the art, save the magnified version to the personal collection, leave notes and comments particular to each saved version of the art, then share the collection through the previously mentioned sites.
Perhaps one of the most vital technical pieces of the Google Art Project is the user interface of the web site, which was developed by the company Schematic. They played a big role in integrating all of Google’s components, Picasa, Street View, Google Maps, YouTube, and Google Scholar, and making sure they all run together smoothly and seamlessly. According to the Schematic executive vice president for user experience, Jason Brush, the hardest part was being true to the museums’ wishes of how their artwork was displayed. He states, “There was also a lot of pressure to make sure that we weren't making any explicit curatorial decisions. An interface can of course say something specific in and of itself, and we worked very hard to make sure that we weren't imposing a point of view on the display of artwork.”
(Terdiman and Brush, 2011).
While Google Art Project appears to be a wonderful tool for finding and viewing art, there are naturally several concerns that come with the launch of this type of technology. So far, some of the biggest complaints have been regarding the technology of the web site itself. Roberta Smith, in her New York Times article, refers to it as “a work in progress, full of bugs and information gaps, and sometimes blurry, careering virtual tours” (Smith, 2011). As the project is not even a year old yet, these bugs are to be expected and will most likely be addressed, if they haven’t been already. Luc Vincent, director of engineering at Google and head of the team that did the Street View captures in the museums, already addressed some of these problems at the launch event. “He described plans to upgrade the panorama cameras -- particularly in terms of aperture control -- to achieve a more consistent quality throughout the interior spaces of future iterations” (Proctor, 2011). He also discussed how important it will be in the future to collaborate with museums' lighting and photography teams to get the best possible results (Proctor, 2011).
Some of these information gaps and blurry works of art can’t be avoided because they are a result of copyright restrictions. “The quantity of artist information and viewing notes you get for the works in the Art Project varies because Google allowed each museum to submit as much or as little as it wanted. The museums also decided how many works to submit and how many spaces to open to virtual visitors” (Pack, 2011). For example, MoMA only chose works for the project that are already in the public domain and blurred the other pieces in the gallery that had would have violated copyright laws (Pack, 2011). The Tate Britain took another approach and contacted a living artist, Chris Ofili, for permission to submit his work, which he gladly granted. However, even some of these images had to be blurred to avoid illegal reproduction (Pack, 2011).
Something to consider for the future of this project is the cost and the sheer vastness of the possible collections that could be included. In her article for Curator, Nancy Proctor points out that producing such high-resolution images is “neither easy nor cheap”. She references Jane Burton, the creative director of Tate Media, who fears that this project will not be able to include twentieth century artists because of the expense of reproduction fees or the expense and difficult process of negotiating rights to this art. She also thinks that the availability of art from the old masters and generous contemporary artists who agree to share their art will skew users’ expectations of the availability and affordability of art (Proctor, 2011). The possibility for more museums to become a part of the Google Art Project begs the question of who will financially support this endeavor. If more and more museums decide to join, will Google have essentially bit of more than it can chew? Each addition takes a great amount of effort, work, and money and these things need to be considered before jumping in to this massive project. Proctor brings up another good point in that several museums have already begun their own digitization of their artwork and information. Should museums continue these efforts or abandon them in favor of an option with better equipment that results in a higher quality image? (Proctor, 2011)
One of the biggest questions regarding the Google Art Project is what effect it will have on the physical museums. Some are worried that people will stop visiting art museums because they’ll be able to view the collection from their homes for free, without having to fight the crowds. In an interview, Jason Bush, who works with the company Schematic that designed the interface, mentioned that the company was under a lot of pressure to make sure that their interface was designed in such a neutral manner that it didn’t say anything about the artwork. He states, “The museums themselves have the cultural and civic onus to present the artworks in their collections in whatever way that's appropriate to their mission. We didn't want to usurp that. We were in essence creating a whole new model for viewing art, which was a great responsibility.” He further stresses that they desired that the site would not just provide easy access to artwork but would encourage people to go to the museum and have the actual “live, in-person museum-going experience” (Terdiman and Bush, 2011). He reiterates that there is some art that needs to be experienced in person to get the full effect. Sood, the head of the project, voiced similar feelings. He states, “So, whether you’re a student, an aspiring artist or a casual museum-goer, we hope the Google Art Project gives you a fun and unusual way to interact with art—and hopefully inspires you to visit the real thing” (Sood, 2011).
Despite these concerns, on the whole, the Google Art Project has created a positive buzz. It is a wonderful example of how current technology has made it possible for more people to have access to view and study art. In the past, while it may have been unlikely that the average individual would get to visit a few, if any, famous art museums, the opportunity to see prints and replicas of these various paintings was not uncommon. Many see them in books, on television, or as images on the Internet. Many museums have begun creating digital copies of their famous art to put on their websites and there are multiple databases, such as ArtStor that provide high quality digital images of artwork. However, the unique features of Google Art provide the user with a rare opportunity to not just view the images in high quality, but have more of the actual museum experience. It also provides easy access to scholarly information about the art and even includes actual lectures from museum curators that, up until now, only actual museum-goers would experience. The best part is, it’s available free of charge. Now art enthusiasts can virtually walk through famous art museums and galleries and view the artwork in its environment. Teachers can share a new resource with students when teaching art history, making it more of an experience than a lesson. Plus, the ability to create a personal art collection encourages people to interact with the art, magnifying different areas to create different views, and then share their discoveries and collections via social networking features. This may be the feature that truly separates Google Art from its competitors and identifies it as a true 21st century technology resource.
Overall, the Google Art Project provides anyone with Internet access the opportunity to explore some of the world's most famous art. It may have laid the foundation for the future of how art will be accessed and viewed online. Proctor suggests that the integrated features and high quality images that make up Google Art have helped created standards for future similar projects. She states “Perhaps the most important role of the Google Art Project is to be a “platform”…giving rise to new and surprising ways of interacting with collections” (Proctor, 2011). It may be too early yet to tell if the Google Art Project will be a big success and will continue to add collections from other museums. Nevertheless, the idea behind the project is commendable and speaks to what technology can be used to accomplish in today’s society. As Sood puts it, “Making that intense viewing accessible to virtually anyone, especially those who normally can't afford museum entrance fees, is exactly the point of the Art Project. These works of art are part of our shared culture…anyone should be able to see them, regardless of where they live or how much money they have. The internet makes this possible" (Berwick, 2011). Indeed, the Google Art Project is revolutionizing the way we look at art, providing access to more people than ever before and giving them the opportunity to not just view an image of the art, but to interact with it.


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