Google Art Project
|Initial release||February 1, 2011|
|Stable release||3 / 20 May 2013|
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, in cooperation with 17 international museums, including the Tate Gallery, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; and the Uffizi, Florence.
The platform 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. The images of many of the artworks were reproduced with very high quality, and each partner museum selected 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 Art Project as it signed partnership agreements with 151 museums from 40 countries. The platform now features more than 32,000 artworks from 46 museums, and the image acquisition process 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. Additionally, Google launched a second, improved version of the website with new Google+ features, enhanced search capabilities, and a series of educational tools. Google intended for this second-generation platform to be a global resource; accordingly, the Art Project is now available in 18 languages, including Bahasa, English, French, Japanese, Polish, and Portuguese.
- Virtual Gallery Tour (aka Gallery View)
- Users can virtually ‘walk through’ the galleries of each partner museum, using the same controls as Google Street View or by clicking on the gallery’s floorplan.
- Artwork View (aka Microscope View)
- From the Gallery View, users can zoom in on a particular artwork to view the picture in greater detail. As of April 2012, over 32,000 high-quality images are available for view.
- Microscope view provides users a dynamic image of an artwork, and scholarly and contextual information to enhance their understanding of the work. When examining an artwork, users may also access information detailing the physical characteristics of the image (e.g. size, material(s), artist). Partner museums were offered the option to include Viewing Notes, History of the Artwork, and Artist Information, which users can easily access from the microscope view interface. Each museum was allowed to include as much material as they wanted to contribute, so the level of information varies by museum and by artwork. Using services like Google Scholar and YouTube, Google includes external links for users to explore additional information about an artwork or gallery.
- Create an Artwork Collection
- Users can log in with their Google Account to create their own collection. Users can compile any number of images from any of the partner museums and save specific views of artworks to create a personalized virtual exhibition. Using Google’s link abbreviator (Goo.gl), users can easily share their artwork collection with others through social media and conventional online communications mechanisms. This feature was so successful upon the Art Project’s launch, that Google had to dedicate additional servers to support it. The second generation Art Project platform seamlessly integrates Google's social media platform Google+, so that site users can upload video and audio content to personalize their gallery, and share their collections through their social media networks.
- New Second-Generation Art Project Features
- Explore and Discover
- In the second launch of the Art Project, Google updated the platform's search capabilities, so that users could more easily and intuitively find artworks. Now, users can find art by filtering their search with several categories, including: artist, museum, type of work, date, and country. The search results are displayed in a slideshow format. This new functionality enables site users to search across numerous collections to find artworks that fit their parameters of interest.
- Video and Audio Content
- Several partner museums have now opted to include guided tour or welcome videos of their galleries. This provides users the option to virtually walk through a museum themselves and listen to an audio guide at certain artworks, or to follow a video tour as an expert guides them through a gallery. For example, Michelle Obama filmed a welcome video for the White House gallery page, and Israel's Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem launched a YouTube channel with 400 hours of original video footage from the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which users can access through the museum's Art Project exhibits.
- Google Art Project now includes several educational tools and resources for teachers and students. First, Google has created a multitude of educational videos, available through a YouTube channel and embedded on the Google Art Project web page. Next, two pages called "Look Like an Expert" and "DIY" provides several activities for site users, similar to those often found in art galleries. For example, one quiz asks site visitors to match a painting to a particular style; another asks visitors to find a symbol within a specified painting that represents a provided story. Finally, the "What's Next" page provides site visitors with a list of resources and links to various art history timelines, art toolkits, and comparative teaching resources.
The Art Project 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 Art Project after a discussion on how to use Google technology to make museums’ artwork more accessible. The Art Project concept fits Google'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.
The team 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. Only this technology allowed to achieve the excellent attention to detail and this 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 further maximize image quality, the Google team coordinated with partner museums’ lighting technicians and photography teams. For example, at the Tate Britain, the Google team and Tate representatives collaborated to capture the Tate's gigapixel image No Woman No Cry in both natural light and in the dark. The Tate suggested this method, so that the Art Project could 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, Google Art Project visitors 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 within Google Street View, so that users can seamlessly transition from Google Maps, to Google Street View, to looking inside the partner museums’ galleries. Street View was also integrated with Picasa, to enable 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 some of Google’s scholarly resources—including Google Scholar, Google Docs and YouTube—so users can link to external content to learn more about that particular work. Finally, the platform incorporates Google’s URL abbreviator (Goo.gl), so that users can save and easily share their personal collections.
The Art Project has been integrated with Google's 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 Google Art Project 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 Art Project, 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. Google stated that the effect was 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 Art Project] 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, Google 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. Google is also considering the addition of an experimental page to the platform, to highlight emerging technologies that artists are using to showcase their works.
Institutions and 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 Art Project’s launch. All images shown are actual images from Google Art Project:
On April 3, 2012, Google announced the expansion of the Art Project 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 Art Project platform.
Google has been dedicated to making the Art Project a more global project, so it sought to expand its partnerships with local, regional and national museums from 40 countries. The Art Project 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. Over 15 years later, museum personnel are still grappling with how their institutions can best utilize the internet.
Simultaneous to these discussions, Google has grown from a small research project to a dominant Internet and software corporation.
The Art Project emerged at the intersection of Google's expansion as an information resource and art museums' challenge to move online. These situations and corresponding trends shaped the development of the Art Project.
Contemporary Google initiatives
As noted above, Google made use of several existing solutions to help meet technology needs of the Art Project.
Another Google initiative—Google Books—affected the development of the Art Project 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 Art Project. The Art Project's intellectual property policy is:
- The high resolution imagery of artworks featured on the art project site are owned by the museums, and these images may be subject to copyright laws around the world. The Street View imagery is owned by Google. All of the imagery on this site is provided for the sole purpose of enabling you to use and enjoy the benefit of the art project site, in the manner permitted by Google’s Terms of Service . The normal Google Terms of Service apply to your use of the entire site.
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 artwork 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 Art Project.
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 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.
Democratization of culture
With the rapid increase of information that is available online, we are in a period of democratization of knowledge. An elite group of professionals and experts are no longer the only people with the ability to distribute respected information. Rather, through web-based initiatives like Wikipedia, anyone with web access can contribute to and help shape public knowledge.
The Google Art Project 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 Google Art Project 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 Art Project is beginning to reflect this. When it just included the Grand Masters of Western Art, the Google Art 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.
The Google Art Project stirred up debate among scholars, museum personnel, art critics, and news writers. Since its initial launch, the Google Art Project 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 Art Project has centered on an increased audience gaining access to art, the marketing externality for museums, and the potential for future development of the initiative.
- Increases access to art. So long as one has internet access, anyone, anywhere, at any time can visit the Google Art Project, enabling audiences who otherwise would be unlikely to visit these museums to see their works. "Armchair tourists" are now able to tour some of the world's greatest art exhibits without leaving their seat. Professors and students can go on virtual field trips without the usual associated costs, and have a remote conversation with an expert from a museum or other institution.
- Triggers new visitors Many art historians and scholars have posited that online exhibitions would drive more people to the gallery, and the Google Art Project has supported this theory. Research established that there is a statistically significant relationship between those who visit the Google Art Project and those who are inspired to go on a real tour of a museum. In further support of this concept, within two weeks of the launch of the Art Project, MoMA saw its website's traffic increase by about 7%. It is, however, unclear how many physical visitors came to MoMA as a result of the Art Project.
- Complements real visits to a gallery. While there has been some skepticism that the Google Art Project seeks to replace real-time visits to art galleries, many have suggested that the virtual tours actually complement real-time visits. Research shows that people are more likely to enjoy their real-time visit to a museum after participating in a virtual tour. Several museum personnel have supported this concept anecdotally. Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art stated: “The gigapixel experience brings us very close to the essence of the artist through detail that simply can’t be seen in the gallery itself. Far from eliminating the necessity of seeing artworks in person, Art Project deepens our desire to go in search of the real thing.” This view was shared by Brian Kennedy, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, who believed that academics would still want to view artwork in three dimensions, even if the gigapixel images provided better clarity than viewing the artwork in the gallery. Similarly, Amit Sood—the Google project leader—said that "nothing beats the first-person experience".
- Has future development potential. Some scholars and art critics believe the Google Art Project will change how museums use the web. For instance, Nancy Proctor—Head of Mobile Strategy & Initiatives at the Smithsonian—suggested that museums may eventually utilize the Art Project to provide museum maps and gallery information instead of printed materials. It might become possible for museum visitors to hold up their smart phone in front of an artwork, and the Art Project could overlay information. The Art Project could also provide a seamless transition from a Google Map to an inside gallery map, avoiding the need for printed collateral.
A few initial criticisms of the Art Project—including skewed representation of artworks—have lost some validity with the launch of the second generation platform.
- Too Eurocentric. During its initial launch, many critics argued that the Google Art Project provided a Western-biased representation of art. Most museums included in the first phase of the Project were from Western Europe, Washington, DC, and New York, NY. According to Diana Skaar, head of partnerships for the Art Project, Google responded directly to this criticism: “After the launch of round one, we got an overwhelming response from museums worldwide. So for round two, we really wanted to balance regional museums with those that are more nationally or globally recognized.” Now, the Art Project's expanded repository includes graffiti works, dot paintings, rock art and indigenous artworks.
Although Google may have responded to this issue, there are other neglected criticisms:
- Who chooses the content? Although the Google Art Project is now partners with 134 new museums, some critics believe it still may present a skewed representation of art and art history. Google and the partner museums are able to decide what information to include, and what artworks they will make available (and at what level of quality); some believe this is counter-intuitive to the website's seemingly democratic objective. For example, in the White House virtual collection, one photo of a former First Lady does not include a key piece of information to understand the context of the image. Grace Coolidge often wore brightly colored clothes. In her White House portrait, she was dressed in a red sleeveless flapper dress, and stood next to a large white dog. There are two versions of this picture: one showing Coolidge on a white background with softer lines, and one showing her on the White House lawn. The Google Art Project description leaves out the reason for why there are two images. President Coolidge preferred his wife to a white dress. The artist, however, wanted the dress to contrast with the white dog. So, the President Coolidge then retorted, “Dye the dog!” While perhaps not crucial to understanding the exhibit, this and other examples show that the Google Art Project and partner museums are in a position of power to curate the content and educational information of the virtual exhibition.
- Who Is the audience? Some critics have expressed concern over the intended audience of the Art Project, as this should shape the type of content available through the platform. For example, Director of the Center for the Future of Museums, Elizabeth Merritt, described the project as an "interesting experiment" but was skeptical as to its intended audience.
- Are there security risks? Some critics have raised the question of how Art Project visitors might maliciously use the Street View images. For example, by providing highly detailed images of galleries, people could use this platform to map out museum security systems, and then be able to circumvent these protective measures during a break-in.
- Theosianama.com is an online knowledge-base on the Indian Arts, Books, Architecture, Culture and the worlds of Cinema.
- Europeana is a virtual repository of artworks, literature, cultural objects, relics, and musical recordings/writings from over 2000 European institutions.
- The Virtual Museum of Canada is a virtual collection containing exhibits from thousand of Canadian local, provincial and national museums.
- Images for the Future is a project dedicated to digitizing audiovisual cultural objects of the Netherlands, and making these exhibits available through its online archive.
- Khan Academy's smARThistory is a multimedia resource with videos, audio guides, mobile applications and commentary from art historians.
- Many individual museums have also begun to offer virtual exhibitions. Some offer virtual 3-D tours similar to the Google Art Project's gallery view; others simply reproduce images from their collection on the institution's web page. For example:
- The Bucharest Natural History Museum and the Museum of the Romanian Peasant offer virtual tours of two of Romania's larger historical/anthropological museums.
- The Prado launched a virtual collection, in collaboration with Google Earth, in January 2009. The website contained photos of 14 Prado paintings, each with up to 14 gigapixels.
- Some museums have collections that exist solely in cyberspace; these are known as Virtual museums.
- Wikipedia GLAM ("galleries, libraries, archives, and museums", also including botanic and zoological gardens) helps cultural institutions share their resources with the world through collaborative projects with experienced Wikipedia editors.
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