The End of Museums?

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Google’s latest venture, taking Street View to the Gallery, has been the topic of numerous articles, blogs and editorials that can only equal the amount of hype that Google themselves have surrounded the project with. However, much to Google’s dismay, the response to this undeniably incredible piece of technology has not been wholly positive, and the project has come under heavy criticism.

Google Art Project provides Street View-esque remote access to priceless art from seventeen of the worlds major art institutions. These heavyweight museums include the MOMA, Tate Britain, The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and the Uffizi in Florence, to name a few. The project provides initial access to over one thousand works with the aim of expansion in time. The scale alone of the project is groundbreaking. However, Google goes even further in allowing each museum to select one piece to be reproduced online in super high resolution using gigapixel photo capturing technology.

It must be noted that Google is not the first to provide this sort of technology. The Louvre has a similar project provided by the C2RMF research house which includes along with zoomable high resolution images, x-ray, infrared and UV. So what has made Google’s Art Project such a prominent topic of discussion amongst the art world?

Google has taken on quite a challenge with this cultural documentation, but its aim of bringing art to the masses is hard to criticise. Not everyone has the resources or time to travel across the planet and visit all these galleries, therefore a website that allows people to do so at no expense and in a matter of minutes cannot be a bad thing. It is not often you get a chance to explore the Uffizi on your lunch break.

Students will also benefit greatly from this new technology. Although the image selection is limited at present, any chance to view good quality images of art should not be belittled as they far surpass the old slide collections and web images that are currently relied upon. St Andrews University Art History lecturer Dr Julian Luxford supports the project highlighting how the ‘extraordinary’ gigapixel images could be of use in teaching. St Andrews students of Art History can only view it as a positive development.

The Telegraph writer Alastair Sooke, however, in his article ‘The Problem With Google’s Art Project’, is openly critical of the project’s execution and it seems that for many this is the issue, rather than the project’s intention. His point seems valid; the interface on the website is somewhat clunky at first. Instead of slowly gliding down the Versailles hall of Mirrors you end up stumbling along as though severely injured. Once you have struggled to the painting you wish to view you may then be disappointed by the quality of the image you look at. Those pictures not presented in high resolution are distinctly grainy and fail to deliver the beauty of the real image. Google’s technology may be fine when capturing a house on a street but it does not do justice to Cezanne.

Yet the artworks that are ‘gigapixeled’ are incredible. The ultra-detail allows the viewer to zoom in to a level that the naked eye could not see. Even the artist could not have comprehended the viewpoint Google Art Project provides us with. Such tiny elements in paintings such as the cracks in the paint and individual brushstrokes can fill the computer screen. When compared with the rope barriers holding back spectators in the gallery itself, this freedom is delightful.

While Google views this technology as groundbreaking others see it as ruining the honesty of the painting itself. ARTINFO deputy editor, Ben Davis, articulates this response, describing how the hyper-reality gigapixels provided has led to art being viewed in a way it was never meant to be. Suddenly Google Art Project is not just providing a surrogate for the real thing but a representation that goes beyond the piece itself.

Another fear is that Google Art Project will replace museums and galleries. The concern being that if these institutions are available free of charge online, no one will make the effort to visit them in person. In response to this charge, Jason Brush, the Executive Vice President at Scematic, Google’s partner on this project, stresses that Google’s technology intends to maintain the distinction between the ‘live in-person museum-going experience’ and the experience online.

It seems obvious that no level of detail or programming could ever replace the reality of visiting one of these institutions. Google Art project does not provide, nor does it strive to provide, the atmosphere (that nervous silence filled with awkward coughs) or the musty smell of museums and it most certainly lacks that dull back ache that accompanies the slow stroll and neck craning as you wander around the buildings. Google’s project isn’t competing with this experience. It serves to provide a preview of a real gallery experience and it is unimaginable that a website could ever replace the reality of a visit. It seems that its effect will more likely be to expand interest in the museums it recreates, not dim it.

The debate around the Google Art Project shows how the limits of technology must be highlighted, but not to such an extent that the obvious positive elements of such innovations are sidelined. The Google Art Project may change the way we view art but it will only do so in partnership with museums. It relies on their consent and co-operation to operate. These institutions would not do so if they did not feel they, in return, would benefit from this relationship. It is also fair to say that the Google Art Project will present some intriguing questions for the art institutions that hold such an important role within our society.

However, in this discussion we miss the point of the Google Art Project, this is a website that will introduce millions to art they may never otherwise have seen, and this alone justifies its existence.

Rosalie Lindqvist Jones

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