Google Arts & Culture (formerly Google Art Project) is an online platform through which the public can access high-resolution images of artworks housed in the initiative's partner museums. The project was launched on 1 February 2011 by Google through its Google Cultural Institute, in cooperation with 17 international museums, including the Tate Gallery, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; and the Uffizi, Florence.
The digital platform utilizes high-resolution image technology and enables users to virtually tour partner museums’ galleries, explore physical and contextual information about artworks, and compile their own virtual collection. The "walk-through" feature of the project uses Google's Street View technology, and partner museums could select one artwork to be captured as a gigapixel image (with over 1 billion pixels).
On April 3, 2012, Google announced a major expansion to the platform as it signed partnership agreements with 151 museums from 40 countries. The platform now features more than 32,000 artworks from 46 museums, and image acquisition is underway at the remaining partner museums. This expansion includes works from institutions like the Art Gallery of Ontario, the White House, the Australian Rock Art Gallery at Griffith University, the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, and the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Google also launched a second version of the website with new Google+ features, enhanced search capabilities, and a series of educational tools. The platform is now available in 18 languages, including English, Japanese, Indonesian, French, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese.
|Google Arts & Culture|
Screenshot of the website, showing different themes.
|Developer(s)||Google Cultural Institute|
|Initial release||February 1, 2011|
The platform emerged as a result of Google's "20-percent time" policy, by which employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time working on an innovative project of interest. A small team of employees created the concept for the platform after a discussion on how to use the firm's technology to make museum’ artwork more accessible. The platform concept fits the firm's mission "to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." Accordingly, in mid-2009, Google executives agreed to support the project, and they engaged online curators of numerous museums to commit to the initiative.
They created an indoor-version of the Google Street View 360-degree camera system to capture gallery images by pushing the camera 'trolley' through a museum. It also used professional panoramic heads Clauss Rodeon VR Head Hd And Clauss VR Head ST to take high resolution photos of the artworks within a gallery .This technology allowed th excellent attention to detail and the highest image resolution. Each partner museum selected one artwork to be captured at ultra-high resolution with approximately 1,000 times more detail than the average digital camera. The largest image, Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov's The Apparition of Christ to the People, is over 12 gigapixels. To maximize image quality, the team coordinated with partner museums’ lighting technicians and photography teams. For example, at the Tate Britain, they collaborated to capture a gigapixel image of No Woman No Cry in both natural light and in the dark. The Tate suggested this method to capture the painting's hidden phosphorescent image, which glows in the dark. The Google camera team had to adapt their method, and keep the camera shutter open for 8 seconds in the dark to capture a distinct enough image. Now, unlike at the Tate, from the site one can view the painting in both light settings.
Once the images were captured, the team used Google Street View software and GPS data to seamlessly stitch the images and connect them to museum floor plans. Each image was mapped according to longitude and latitude, so that users can seamlessly transition to it from Google Maps, looking inside the partner museums’ galleries. Street View was also integrated with Picasa, for seamless transition from gallery view to microscope view.
The user interface lets site visitors virtually ‘walk through’ galleries with Google Street View, and look at artworks with Picasa, which provides the microscope view to zoom in to images for greater detail than is visible to the naked eye. Additionally, the microscope view of artworks incorporates other resources—including Google Scholar, Google Docs and YouTube—so users can link to external content to learn more about the work. Finally, the platform incorporates Google's URL shortener (Goo.gl), so that users can save and easily share their personal collections.
The platform has been integrated with the social media platform Google+ to enable users to share their personal collections with their networks. This integration also lets site visitors use Google+ Hangouts for more interactive purposes. These situations might include: a professor giving an online lecture to students, engaging in video and shared-screen discussions about a collection, or an expert leading a virtual tour of a distant museum to remote attendees.
The resulting platform is a Java-based Google App Engine Web application, which exists on Google's infrastructure.
Luc Vincent, director of engineering at Google and head of the team responsible for Street View for the platform, stated concern over the quality of panorama cameras his team used to capture gallery and artwork images. In particular, he believes that improved aperture control would enable more consistent quality of gallery images.
Some artworks were particularly difficult to capture and re-present accurately as virtual, two-dimensional images. For example, Google described the inclusion of Hans Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors as "tough". This was due to the anamorphic techniques distorting the image of a skull in the foreground of the painting. When looking at the original painting at the National Gallery in London, the depiction of the skull appears distorted until the viewer physically steps to the side of the painting. Once the viewer is looking at the shape from the intended vantage point, the lifelike depiction of the skull materializes. The effect is still apparent in the gigapixel version of the painting, but was less pronounced in the "walk-through" function.
As New York Times art reviewer Roberta Smith said: “[Google Arts & Culture] is very much a work in progress, full of bugs and information gaps, and sometimes blurry, careering virtual tours.” Though the second generation platform solved some technological issues, the firm plans to continue developing additional enhancements for the site. Future improvements currently under consideration include: upgrading panorama cameras, more detailed web metrics, and improved searchability through metatagging and user-generated metatagging. The firm is also considering the addition of an experimental page to the platform, to highlight emerging technologies that artists are using to showcase their works.
Seventeen partner museums were included in the launch of the project. The original 1,061 high-resolution images (by 486 different artists) are shown in 385 virtual gallery rooms, with 6,000 Street View–style panoramas.
Below is a list of the original seventeen partner museums at the time of the platform's launch. All images shown are actual images from Google Arts & Culture:
|Partner Museum||Gigapixel artwork||Title||Artist||Date|
|In the Conservatory||Édouard Manet||1878–1879|
|Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian
Washington, DC, USA
|The Princess from the Land of Porcelain||James McNeill Whistler||1863–1865|
New York, USA
|St Francis in the Desert||Giovanni Bellini||c. 1480|
|The Merchant Georg Gisze||Hans Holbein the Younger||1497–1562|
Prague, Czech Republic
|The Cathedral (Katedrála)||František Kupka||1912–1913|
|Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, USA
|The Harvesters||Pieter Bruegel the Elder||1565|
|Museum of Modern Art
New York, USA
|The Starry Night||Vincent van Gogh||1889|
|Museo Reina Sofia
|The Bottle of Anís del Mono||Juan Gris||1914|
|Young Knight in a Landscape||Vittore Carpaccio||1510|
|The Ambassadors||Hans Holbein the Younger||1533|
|Palace of Versailles
|Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg, Queen of France, and her children||Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun||1787|
|Night Watch||Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn||1642|
|State Hermitage Museum
St. Petersburg, Russia
|The Return of the Prodigal Son||Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn||1663–1665|
|State Tretyakov Gallery
|The Appearance of Christ Before the People||Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov||1837–1857|
|No Woman No Cry||Chris Ofili||1998|
|The Birth of Venus||Sandro Botticelli||1483–1485|
|Capitoline Wolf||500 BC–480 BC|
|Van Gogh Museum
|The Bedroom||Vincent van Gogh||1888|
On April 3, 2012, Google announced the expansion of the platform to include 151 museums. At the time of the announcement, 46 of those museums and their works are available on the website. Like the original 17 partners, each of the new partners has a gigapixel image of one of their works on the platform platform.
Google has been dedicated to making the platform a more global project, so it sought to expand its partnerships with local, regional and national museums from 40 countries. the platform now also offers galleries the option to submit a form and apply for partnership with Google.
As early as the late-1980s, art museum personnel began to consider how they could exploit the Internet to achieve their institutions' missions through online platforms. For example, in 1994 Elizabeth Broun, Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, spoke to the Smithsonian Commission on the future of art, stating: "We need to put our institutional energy behind the idea of getting the Smithsonian hooked up to the people and schools of America." She then outlined the museum's objective to conserve, protect, present, and interpret exhibits, explaining how electronic media could help achieve these goals. The expansion of internet programs and resources has shaped the development of the platform.
Another Google initiative—Google Books—affected the development of the platform from a non-technological perspective. Google recently faced a six-year-long court case relating to several issues with copyright infringement. Google Books catalogued full digital copies of texts, including those still protected by copyright, though Google claimed it was permissible under the fair use clause. Google ended up paying $125 million to copyright-holders of the protected books, though the settlement agreement was modified and debated several times before it was ultimately rejected by federal courts. In his decision, Judge Denny Chin stated the settlement agreement would "give Google a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission," and could lead to antitrust issues. Judge Chin said in future open-access initiatives, Google should use an "opt-in" method, rather than providing copyright owners the option to "opt out" of an arrangement.
After this controversy, Google took a different approach on intellectual property rights for the Google Arts & Culture. The platform's intellectual property policy is:
The Google team was sensitive to copyright issues of artworks, and partner museum staff were able to ask Google to blur out the images of certain works, which are still protected by copyrights. In a few cases, museums wanted to include artworks by modern and contemporary artists, many of whom still hold the copyright to their work. For example, the Tate Britain approached Chris Ofili to get his permission to capture and reproduce his works on the platform.
However, since the project expanded in April 2012, Google has faced a few intellectual property issues. Some of the works added to the online exhibitions are still protected by copyright, as the artist or his or her heirs holds the right to the image for 70 years. As a result, the Toledo Museum of Art asked Google to remove 21 artworks from the website, including works by Henri Matisse and other modern artists.
By December 2013, the contents of the project were accessible from Google Cultural Institute, a site that works similarly. It features digitized objects from archives, libraries and a wider array of museums not strictly devoted to art. This initiative is increasingly subsuming the Google Arts & Culture within its wider ambit.
The Google Arts & Culture stirred up debate among scholars, museum personnel, art critics, and news writers. Since its initial launch, it has received fairly consistent positive feedback, and a variety of criticisms. With the second generation platform, Google appears to have responded to some earlier criticisms.
Positive feedback about the platform has centered on an increased audience gaining access to art, the marketing externality for museums, and the potential for future development of the initiative.
The Google Arts & Culture is, according to some, a democratic initiative. It aims to give more people access to art by removing barriers like cost and location. Some art or cultural exhibits have been limited to a small group of viewers (e.g. PhD students, academic researchers) due to deteriorating condition of a work, lack of available wall space in a museum, or other similar factors. Digitized reproductions, however, can be accessible to anyone from any location. This type of online resource can transform research and academia by opening access to previously exclusive art works, enabling multidisciplinary and multi-institutional learning. It provides people the opportunity to experience art individually, and a platform to become involved in conversation. For example, the platform now lets users contribute their own content, adding their insight to the public collection of knowledge.
Many scholars have argued that we are experiencing a breakdown of the canon of high art, and the Google Arts & Culture is beginning to reflect this. When it just included the Grand Masters of Western Art, the project faced strong criticism. As a result of this outburst, the website now includes some indigenous and graffiti artworks. This platform also provides a new context through which people encounter art, ultimately reflecting this shift away from the canon of high art.
A few initial criticisms of the platform—including skewed representation of artworksˇhave lost some validity with the launch of the second generation platform.
Although the firm may have responded to this issue, there are other neglected criticisms:
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