Why the Google Art Project is Important

Google Art Project Van Gogh Bedrooms Gallery
by Beth Harris, Ph.D. and Steven Zucker, Ph.D., Deans, Art and History, Khan Academy

Our schools and libraries are being radically re-imagined for the digital age, but what about our museums? The New York Public Library, for example, is bravely (and controversially) rethinking its Fifth Avenue flagship building. Last month, MIT and Harvard announced edX, a partnership to offer free online courses, and last fall, Stanford offered three massive open online courses (MOOC) to hundreds of thousands of students for free, and Khan Academy provided 6.1 million unique users with free instruction in March 2012 alone. Museums, on the other hand, have remained largely insular and focused on their institutional identity. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the most recent digital innovation comes not from the museums themselves but from Google, which launched the second iteration of the Google Art Project last month.

Google faces numerous challenges among academics; nevertheless, we should recognize that Google’s Art Project has done something extraordinary for both museums and for education. A small team based in London persuaded more than 150 museums from around the world to share more than 32,400 high-resolution images beyond their own institutional boundaries.

This is a really big deal.

For the first time in history it is easy for non-specialists to explore and closely examine art from museums across the globe on a single website. There have been other initiatives that have moved in this direction, but never with the scope or functionality of the Google Art Project. The Art Project isn’t finished. It needs more museums and more art. It needs improved search and filtering tools. And the public needs better ways to discover and contribute new narratives about art’s history. Despite these weaknesses, the educational potential is tremendous.

Meanwhile, many museum professionals (Nina Simon, Nancy Proctor, Seb Chan to name just a few), have been grappling for some time with the question of the future of the museum (see AAM’s Center for the Future of the Museum). And those of us who have worked in the area of museum technology have asked specifically about the future of the museum website. Koven Smith, Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum asked more than a year ago, “What things do museums do *exclusively* because of tradition? If you were building a museum from scratch, what would you do differently?” Since born-digital institutions often succeed where legacy institutions struggle, this is an important question. Mia Ridge, whose blog Open Objects, has addressed this question often, responded, “a museum invented now would be conversational and authoritative – here’s this thing, and here’s why it’s cool.”

The question of conversation is key and it’s been central to Smarthistory.khanacademy.org’s pedagogy. In many ways, scholarship at its best is conversation. But up until now, museums have conversed very little with one another—either on or offline.

Here are two examples of how the Google Art Project opens the conversation. In 1889, Vincent van Gogh painted three canvases depicting his bedroom in Arles; these now reside in three different museums. Only the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam illustrates another version on its website and remarkably, none of the three museums link to the paintings at the other institutions.

Now imagine a student studying Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting, Olympia, in Janson’s History of Art textbook. The book mentions Titian’s Venus of Urbino as an important source for Manet, but doesn’t reproduce this older, Renaissance painting. Even at 1152 pages, the Janson text must be extremely selective for reasons of space and cost. Of course a museum website has no such constraints. Nevertheless, although the Musée d’Orsay, home to Olympia, also mentions the Titian, it provides no link to the painting or to the Galleria degli Uffizi where the painting hangs.

In contrast, the Google Art Project allows visitors to create and share a gallery where these paintings can be viewed side by side; it also includes links to their respective museum collections (where they exist). Imagine the educational impact if museums put together online galleries like this one and included commentary from curators at multiple institutions aimed at a non-scholarly audience.

The Art Project succeeds in large part because it relies on museum expertise—one of the great strengths of the museum in the digital age. Too often museums don’t surface in a simple Google image search. General searches are more likely to return unreliable sites hawking reproductions. In contrast, visitors to the Art Project access current and reliable information. In fact, the Art Project highlights the relative scarcity of educational text and video provided by museums about their permanent collections, the very content the public is looking for. Museums need to create more free content aimed at a general audience and to do so within the broader context of art’s history. Museums employ curatorial staff that, like college and university faculty, have deep knowledge in their areas of expertise, yet too little of that expertise makes its way onto the museum website. Instead, expensive, narrowly targeted, scholarly exhibition catalogs remain the focus of museum publishing.

Naturally, linking and creating content is not free, but it doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive either. Links go bad and have to be updated and there is, of course, always a resource issue. There are ready solutions but such issues are framed by a bigger concern. Namely, should museums point visitors away from their own collection? Museums don’t use the word competitor, but this concept informs such considerations. In an era when education is increasingly occurring outside of traditional learning institutions, we believe that the role of the museum is increasingly important.

There are some hopeful signs. Recently, a few museums (The National Gallery of Art, The Brooklyn Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for example) have begun to offer public domain images for download. We hope more museums will recognize that in the digital era, the old model of controlling and charging for reproductions of public domain work flies in the face of their mission. Museums, and the artists’ rights organizations (such as ARS and VAGA) and the estates they work with, need to do far more to make the shared cultural heritage they hold in trust, accessible. Peter Samis, Associate Curator, Interpretive Media at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently asked, “Are the artworks ours to give? Are they ours to withhold?”

Now that the value of a global art platform is evident, will museums think differently about sharing resources with each other and the public? The Google Art Project shows what can happen when museums work in parallel; now imagine what could happen if museums choose to work together.

Disclaimer: Harris and Zucker created the Khan Academy videos on the Google Art Project

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10 Responses to Why the Google Art Project is Important

  1. Chris Lott says:

    I’m “only” an art enthusiast, but I’ve been waiting for a major push for this kind of project for a long time. I very much appreciate the role museums play, but the paucity of well annotated, high resolution images available on the web is sad. I know most museum models are still stuck in the model of artificial scarcity, but I think they only weaken themselves by being so (and miss out on the stimulating effect providing such things could have on their institutions).

    It just seems strange to me that museum administrators truly believe that audience for their physical works is in a zero-sum relationship with audience for digital works. Their mission is to provide the real thing, and no imagery replaces that. And most museums have far more stored away than they can ever display…they don’t need to be hoarders.

  2. The Google Art project is indeed exciting – though I do hope they will enhance the site to be more intuitive for the user, and more importantly add a dimension where users can go beyond merely collecting images. I believe there needs to be some kind of dialogue, even starting with why the user chose a given piece of art to feature in his or her museum. The next phase might be an opportunity for others to comment and engage in dialogue about the piece. This is where art appreciation really begins.

    I work with college professors to develop online curriculum for general education courses. Recently I worked on a ‘Introduction to Music and Art’ three credit college course. For one learning activity, we created a virtual field trip, where students ‘visited’ the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they were directed to the interactive tours, page (http://www.mfa.org/explore/interactive-tours), where the student selects four or five ‘tours’ to view. Once they explore, they are to select his or her favorite piece, and write about the piece, why they chose it, what elements of art (as studied in the course) were apparent, and post this ‘are reflection’ in a discussion forum where the students then read and dialogue together.

    In another activity, students upload a favorite art piece from a specific era, to a ‘glossary’ type tool (within the LMS) describing why they chose the piece, and then comment on other classmates selections.

    I truly believe for art appreciation to be meaningful, one must go beyond merely looking and admiring. For the Google Art project to be effective, I believe it will need to provide [clear] directions, how-to’s, and guidance for specific groups: 1) educators, how they can use it, 2) the novice, where to begin, the ‘basic’s of art etc. and 3) the experienced, curators, museum directors, educators etc.

  3. Thanks for your insightful analysis, Steven, and for the nod! Here’s the link to my article on Google Art for Curator Journal, which Beth Harris contributed to as well: http://www.curatorjournal.org/archives/635

  4. Beth Harris says:

    Thanks for the link Nancy – and just for clarification, the post above was authored jointly by Steven and me – we’re working on the dual author plug-in as we speak!

  5. Chris Lott says:

    I certainly wouldn’t argue that Google Art is sufficient for an educational experience, but it is making a necessary step to create something of that sort. It could be interesting to see Google Art more integrated into Google+ and the like, but I’m not sure Google is the entity that should be trying to create the educational, pedagogically informed presence. I see the value here as being a source which other, perhaps more appropriate people can build upon…right down to individual educators where the real meat is anyway…

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  7. Absolutely… for serious students of oil painting, it makes a huge difference to be able to see the fine detail.

    Ive spent quite a lot of time looking at the ultra high resolution images of ‘Las Meninas’ by Velasquez.. and there are just things you cant appreciate any other way [ I wouldnt be able to see this in as much detail if I visited the Prado in person ]

    I remember staring at a Rubens painting here in Melbourne, looking for clues as to how he constructed a vibrant lifelike texture with so few colours, and I could see the guards were nervously wondering if I was going to damage one of their 5 million dollar paintings!

    Recently I was looking at reproductions of one of the works by Jacopo Robusti aka “Tintoretto” and the images on the web vary wildly in quality, all pretty dark as if the painting needed cleaning. The google scan seemed to show the painting with a much more dynamic surface, and more plausible colour.. perhaps this is due to better camera or lighting technology or image compression formats which are now available.

    Theres a new revival in figurative realism painting, which is wonderful – these old master works are revered and studied.. but sometimes I think they are idolised as if there is a pure uniform ideal..a one-tru way of ‘classical’ atelier painting. If you look at the brushwork of several masters you see they work in fundamentally different ways.. so there is no perfect ideal to aspire to, and so realism has this very wide and personal basis.. and can be added to even now with each artist arriving at her natural method, technique following creative ends.

    These high fidelity reproductions help show this – otherwise only art experts at the museams would be able to enjoy this.

  8. Ruven says:

    The C2RMF has also produced ultra high resolution images of the version of Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles at the Musée d’Orsay.

    But in addition to high resolution color, there is scientific imaging such as x-rays, infra-red, UV, raking light and other views. See this online interactive viewer.

  9. Turner says:

    Would like to see the fine art details but many of the students in our country are not able to. I am living in China, we are not able to visit Youtube, Facebook, Twitter & many other famous websites, just as Google Art Project.

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