Google Street View: Museum Edition

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 1 2011 2:49 PM

Google Street View: Museum Edition

This morning, Google made a classy splash with Google Art Project , a new collaboration that brings together 17 of the world's leading museums including the Met, MoMa, the Ufizzi, and Tate Britain into one online archive.

Users can view more than 1,000 high-resolution images from 486 different artists, including big-ticket items like Boticelli's "Birth of Venus" and Van Gogh's "The Starry Night." Each of the 17 museums has also chosen one artwork to be digitized using "gigapixel" photo-capturing technology, which the project leader, Amit Sood, explains creates images "around 1,000 times more detailed than your average digital camera."

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The level of detail you can see in these super high-res images is astonishing. I could stare for hours at the eyes of the merchant George Gisze, from the painting by Hans Holbein the Younger an up-close-and-personal perspective I'd never get in the real Germäldegalerie:

/blogs/browbeat/2011/02/01/google_street_view_museum_edition/jcr:content/body/slate_image

The other hyped aspect of the project is the use of Google's Street View technology , which allows users to move through some of the museums' galleries to see how the artworks are displayed in real life. It's a neat idea, but one that I found frustrating in practice: Trying to navigate Street View always makes me feel like I'm playing Mario Kart with my nieces and nephews; I'm forever getting stuck in corners and cursing under my breath.

In this case, Street View doesn't capture much about the actual experience of walking through a museum. That may or may not be its goal, but I'm not sure what additional information the navigation technology affords us. Do I really care what a gallery's floor plan looks like if I can't even look at all the artworks hanging there? (Not every work in every museum is available for viewing through Google Art Project.)

The Washington Post's ArtsPost blog raises similar questions about Google Art Project's usefulness as a museum-visiting proxy:

Previews of the new Google feature also suggest that the company is still thinking in basic terms about how to make cultural information available on the web: digitize and upload. Asked if his team had worked with experts who study the psychology and physiology of how people actually look at art, Sood said that had been left to experts at the respective museums.

Which means that experiencing art through Google Art will have its frustrations. One of the images that will be made available through the new portal is  Han Holbein's 1533 "The Ambassadors,"  held by the National Gallery in London. The painting includes an image of a skull, painted in anamorphic perspective which makes it highly distorted when seen face on, but legible when seen from a sharp side angle. Will the effect translate into online viewing?

"It's tough," says Sood. "We tried, we wanted to get that effect." He says it appears to better effect in the gigapixel version, but not so well in the walk through function.

"Nothing beats the first person experience," says Sood.

Most of the early reactions to the project have been very enthusiastic , but there are some skeptics; the Telegraph 's Alastair Sooke, for example, calls the current collection "frustratingly partial" and notes that the grainy Street View photographs remind him "of the kind of handheld footage favoured in horror movies such as The Blair Witch Project a 'look' that is surely anathema to the carefully orchestrated clarity of the galleries in reality."

Elsewhere in the Telegraph , Florence Waters offers a list of 15 online cultural archives that don't have the flash or cash of Google Art Project, but have wit and soul to spare. If you're in need of a good afternoon cry, I suggest the London Foundling Hospital's " Threads of Feeling " exhibit.

 

Screengrab from googleartproject.com .

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