Van Gogh's The Bedroom in Google Art Project

by • 13 Feb, 2011 • Technology, Thoughts about museumsComments (11)13023

How the Google Art Project might revolutionize the physical museum experience

There were people who said the iPhone and iPad would fail. There’s even a wonderful article about how the Internet will fail from 1995. If the invention of the writing press had preceded the invention of the wheel, I’m sure we would still be reading naysayers elaborate bashing of easy transportation. Today I’m reading a lot of stuff about the Google Art Project not delivering.

Sure, not everything Google touches turns to gold (remember Google Wave?). However, like any future Apple iThing it’s silly to underestimate the impact a Google product will have on a sector. Their marketing budget, distribution channels and development budgets are simply no match for any well-intentioned alternative.

Let’s do a thought experiment and presume the Google Art Project will revolutionize the museum experience the way the iPad will change the publishing industry. Below are six complaints about the Google Art Project I’ve heard most often. What will happen if these become standard practice in our physical museums (which, as I hope to have proven by now, they very well might).

  1. Navigation: The navigation in Google Art Project apparently sucks. In fact, it’s much like finding your way through an endless number of strangely connected galleries, but with the option of going to your desired gallery immediately. Beat that, big 19th century building. Google Art Project will have your audience want to choose highly individual routes through your museum, jumping from room A to room Z back to K to see what they want to see. Just like on the computer.
  2. Zoom: Artists never meant for people to see their works at the resolution Google Art Project presents them, they say. I say if so many people are writing about it, there must be something to it. Rather than putting their noses so close to the canvas the guards blow their whistles, soon visitors will expect museums to offer the opportunity to zoom in and out at will with everything they have on display. And turn that ancient vase around to see the back. And bottom. Just like on the computer.
  3. The real thing: There’s this persistent believe that ‘the real thing’ is endlessly more meaningful to the average visitor than a facsimile. Google Art Project, of course, does not show the real thing. Even worse: with a little bit of imagination (in another open tab) you can immediately compare the painting on the wall with the work that inspired it from an entirely different museum, or even depot. Horrible! In museums, next to that original artefact, people will want to see related works, even if they’re only available as virtual copies. Just like on the computer.
  4. Limited information: Google Art Project has done a pretty good job in providing as much information about an artwork as a museum does on their plaques. Additionally it links to meaningful online resources, which are evidently chosen carefully. Thank god. Google knows better than anybody else it’s not the quantity of information that matters; it’s the quality. They earned gazillions understanding that. Museum will start providing just the information visitors want to have, and nothing else. Just like on the computer.
  5. Social: It’s kind of quiet in the Google Art Project galleries. Also, there’s hardly any means of interaction with the art or the information. Point taken. Google is better at information than interaction as their many attempts to create a buzz show. To make Google Art Project more social, let’s just wait for them to buy a service that already does so.
  6. It’s Google and Google is evil: They will limit the possibilities to Google services, require Google accounts for interaction and when they go for world domination (real, evil, tights-and-capes world domination) they can close our virtual museums just like that. True. Google’s a commercial organisation. But since when has a museum’s dependence on external sources been a limitation? Museums are dependent anyway. Google Art Project might offer enormous opportunities for many museums to work together with a source of funding that can afford 1.8 billion $ offices. In a bright future, many things in our physical museum will go with the Doodle. Just like on the computer.

Google Art Project might just change a bit more than the way we enjoy art online. And we should not look away. More harm has been done by underestimating innovation than by embracing it. Especially when the innovation comes from parties such as Google. Looking forward to a Google Art Project Physical Museum.

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  • Good post, indeed, why not cheer at such a project. you’re absolutely right.

    And you didn’t even mention the extra’s -like I wasted an hour or two locating the birds in the background of a painting I may never have the chance to see irl, and if ever I do I most certainly won’t be able or willing to stand peering in front of it for such a long time -and would not be allowed or able to make decent pictures to save and share what I discovered.

    Why museums don’t get ecstatic seeing how many can enjoy works this way, all the people that lack money or physical ability to go and see real things in far away places…

    Your points 2 and 3 bring to mind 3-4 yr olds that immediately put their hands on *any* screen, as the natural thing to do. What will they want to do to these works in 10-15 years :-)

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  • Thanks for adding the extra’s Yola! Two hours is a long time looking for something though. We might need a Google Maps-alike service to find stuff in paintings. Would be great to add extra layers too, such as different uv and xray scans.

  • Wow, what an idea, the painting as map, with a ‘satellite view’ of the structure of the paint as you zoom in! It has been done, labelling details in big paintings, but I don’t know how they managed the coordinates.

    Of course two hours is very long but that’s the whole point, that you are tempted to explore the work from the comfort of your own home in new ways. Even if it doesn’t seem to make sense, people will do all sort of things when they are possible.

  • Honestly, the GAP reminds me a little of the museums in Second Life. A little awkward, a little strange, but with just that edge of cool that one thinks this could very well be the start of something. It’s not there yet, but this is the baby that will grow into something we never thought possible . . .

  • David Van Zeggeren

    Thanks for your inspiring post Jasper, I hope it will benefit the discussion about these kinds of initiatives. I am a Google Art Project critic though.

    I do agree with you on the fact that underestimating the Google Art Project is naive. I do think the project will reach a massive audience, giving more and more people access to beautiful, significant art from around the world.

    Google sets the standards, with its massive public, broad distribution channels and large budgets. And my concerns are with these standards, as described in your post: context, quality, guidance and authenticity are just some of the terms I would like to through in here. You argue that navigating from room A to Z and back to K is a good thing (making it an User Driven thing). What about ‘telling a story’, giving the visitor a routing and with this context and guidance? Am I stubborn and old-fashion here?

    By launching the Google Art Project people are given the unique opportunity to get known to the world’s finest art, from which they won’t understand not even half of it. This project in this form is making art the same as watching pictures. Isn’t that what art is all about? I don’t think so!

    Google Art Project opened lots of doors, but once through these doors people are left, literally, alone (and they like it, I know). The possibilities of internet have so much more to give! I hope the new digital art standards will not outshine all the better things to come.

  • Hi David, thanks for your reply.

    > “This project in this form is making art the same as watching pictures. Isn’t that what art is all about? I don’t think so!”

    I guess this is the same debate as if listening crappy mp3s is the same as enjoying music; if a pirated cam recording of a movie is valuing cinema; if an iPad can replace the smell of an authentic magazine. Even though they might not have the same authentic cultural or artistic value, they are what most people (will) use. The challenge for us is to make sure that experience is so good and so inspiring they will one day come to a real museum (the way mp3s convert casual listeners in concert-going fans).

  • Antoniachaffey

    But what if i am doing a piece which is MEANT to be sen via satellite? An earth work, with elements such as script? I have designed this and am awaiting funding to execute it. An earth work, with a message for those who fly, and for those who spy. A message of hope and regeneration

  • See additional comments about real vs. virtual, and calculations about how much higher resolution the gigapans are than what the eye can see unaided in this blog post:

  • Pedro

    The iPad and the Google Art Project may revolutionize the future, but not together, because the Google Art Project can’t be viewed on an iPad.

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