The Google Art Project: the Internet’s art database

The chance to visit a museum free from throngs of tourists doing everything from blocking your view, talking loudly, to letting their children run wild used to be a pipe dream. Not anymore. This morning, I spent a great deal of time looking at Rembrandt’s Night Watch at Riksmuseum in Amsterdam. My gaze was so casual and uninhibited by other museumgoers that I was even eating breakfast and wearing my pajamas. You must be wondering how. I did this using the Google Art Project.

Last year Google unveiled their artiest creation to date, the Google Art Project, which uses their street view inside 17 of the world’s leading art museums. The technology enables 360-degree virtual tours of museum interiors, and most of the museums feature a few pieces in super high-resolution using their dazzling gigapixel photo capturing technology. Over this last year the project has grown immensely, adding over one hundred museums to its database.

The project aims to help museums make their artwork more accessible, and to remove the usual restrictions of time, distance, cost, and human frailty. It allows people to discover great treasure troves of art in a moments notice, via the Internet. By freeing art from these constraints, I think Google is making great artwork more accessible.

We all know a simulated Internet art viewing experience cannot substitute viewing art in situ. The experience of standing in front of a work of art: the smells, the sounds, the reaction of others, and its contextualization within the greater scheme of the museum’s collection, often make a great work of art greater.

I imagine a group of Art Historians working frantically inside one of Google’s Labs, to create the Google Art Project. Since this long overdue task of compiling a comprehensive history of art spanning millenniums and cultures is not only dear to Art Historians, but a mandate. Most universities, teaching Art History survey courses are still stuck using out-of-date and narrow-minded textbooks, namely Janson’s History of Art.

If you haven’t already noticed, the list is far from complete; many institutions haven’t bothered to participate. In Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario is the only institution and it doesn’t allow you to virtually visit its museum, rather, it only shows images from their collection. Many world-class institutions, such as, The Prado and The Louvre have not yet added their collections to the database. I imagine copy write and skepticism are contributing factors.

It is a work in progress that needs a lot more tweaking to make it enjoyable. However, in the meantime, cough, chew and speak loudly on your cell phone while exploring some the world’s best art collections through the Google Art Project.

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