The Google Art Camera (screenshot via YouTube)

The Google Art Camera (screenshot via YouTube)

Google Cultural Institute recently revealed that it has engineered the creatively named Google Art Camera: a custom-built camera intended to capture “ultra-high resolution ‘gigapixel’ images” of artworks in museums around the world. It also shared about 1,000 of these photographs online that allow anyone with internet access to zoom in closely to examine the originals — or rather, representations of the originals — in staggering detail. This collection will continue to grow as Google plans to send its 20-strong camera convoy to museums around the world. It also means that Google is increasingly receiving and compiling a ton of data for free (it doesn’t pay the museums) — so we were curious: what are the benefits museums receive by showcasing their collections on another platform?

The Google Art Camera at work at The Kremer Collection (image via @oldmasterpaintings/Instagram) (click to enlarge)

The Google Art Camera at work at The Kremer Collection (image via @oldmasterpaintings/Instagram) (click to enlarge)

What is perhaps the most obvious answer is the one every museum representative I spoke with provided: that placing an institution’s artworks on Google grants museums’ collections much more visibility and public access — which, for many of them, constitutes a central objective. Of course, not all objects from collections are digitized: over the span of five or so days, a Google team visits a museum and captures a handful to dozens of its objects depending on size and the museum’s ability to move art, according to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art‘s Chief Information Officer Doug Allen. This gives museums an opportunity to highlight key objects in its collection — to have some of its favorite pieces available online for anyone’s close perusal.

One of our ‘digital’ philosophies is that we need to make sure our art is placed ‘where people are’ in the digital realms,” Allen told Hyperallergic. “That means Google, ArtStor, social media, Wikipedia, Bridgeman, and really any site where people are looking for great art. People do come to our website, but so many more will stumble upon our objects at the Cultural Institute. We don’t feel there is a competition here.”

From the Barjeel Art Foundation‘s experience, having such an online presence also leads to more opportunities in programming. Curators and institutions, for instance, have approached the United Arab Emirates-based museum after seeing its objects online and inquired about collaborations or loans.

For instance, our ongoing exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery in London came about after curator Omar Kholeif found Barjeel Art Foundation’s works online and was able to browse the collection remotely, ” curator Suheyla Takesh said. “Having works on the Google Cultural Institute website opens up numerous possibilities for future partnerships, potential new projects, and also for academic questions to be raised around the collection.”

Takesh also praised Google Cultural Institute’s innovative design, noting that its interactive interface does not grant the viewing of just individual works and curated exhibitions but also walk-throughs of museum spaces thanks to Google Street View’s virtual tours.

So far, Google Art Camera has not largely focused on major, widely known museums but rather ones that are, on a global level, lesser known or frequented whether because of location or familiarity. Participants include the Museum of Russian Icons in Massachusetts, Bratislava City Gallery in Slovakia, Delhi’s Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, and the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. It’s also notable that many of these institutions are not dedicated to the typical canon of Western art history. Anyone browsing Google Cultural Institute, then, may simply stumble upon all kinds of overlooked gems — or even filter by on collection, medium, place, artist, or date to discover such works.

Washington, DC’s Art Museum of the Americas (AMA), for instance, focuses on promoting art from Latin America and the Caribbean. As Jonathan Goldman, who previously worked for AMA and coordinated its partnership with Google Art Camera said, “DC is full of competition, and the Smithsonian overshadows many of the small museums. So we felt it was another way we could open up the museum and gain exposure. We also appreciated the collaborative nature of Google’s efforts.”

Similarly, Takesh noted that Google Cultural Institute is “a fantastic tool” to help the Barjeel Art Foundation museum share material related to “art and art histories of the Arab World, and making works of art available for investigation by historians, researchers, as well as art enthusiasts no matter where they are in the world.”

Since Google Art Camera is “custom-built to create gigapixel images faster and more easily,” the technology itself is in its own league: the robotic camera takes photographs unlike any most museums are able to capture of their objects. As Dallas Museum of Art‘s (DMA) Director of Technology and Digital Media Shyam Oberoi said, highlighting even a handful of objects at that resolution would have been a challenge to achieve with the museum’s own equipment. The DMA has 650 of its objects on Google Art Project and has taken almost all of those images itself; just one of those was captured by Google Art Camera. If you compare that picture — Camille Pissarro’s “Apple Harvest” (1888) — to one of another painting — a 1775 landscape by Claude-Joseph Vernet, let’s say — the disparity between the two optical technologies is immediately clear.

Critics of Google’s sharp cameras may express concern that online access to art in such great detail may curb people’s interest in visiting the physical works. Why spend time and money on traveling when the object is essentially right in front of you? Allen of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, however, believes the contrary is true — that offering people the digital image will actually stoke curiosity about the original artwork.

“We want as many opportunities as possible for people to discover something of ours,” Allen said, “and say to themselves, ‘I really have to get to Kansas City and see that in person!’”

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

6 replies on “Why Museums Are Granting Google Free Access to Their Collections”

  1. “Critics of Google’s sharp cameras may express concern that online access to art in such great detail may curb people’s interest in visiting the physical works. Why spend time and money on traveling when the object is essentially right in front of you?”

    Is there a source for this? In all my years working in digital heritage I have actually never met somebody in a museum that said this, but yet it always it seems to be used when talking about the risks/benefits of publishing digital collections. I wonder who these people are 🙂

    1. I am for. Well, I do. For example me..
      Of course, I understand you , anyway. I am for publishing digital collections, yes, maybe I am too old.
      Bye good, Joris

    2. In 1999, yes, there were a handful of people working in museums who still wondered about this, and certainly some of the stodgier critics. But it’s been disproved over and over and over, and you’re right that nobody who has even the slightest clue about museums and tech would say it now. Hyperallergic is making it up–there is no such critic now–and they should stop.

      1. The person just below admitted to thinking that and it is a real issue. When I was on a museums education subcommittee around 2010, this was brought up again and I had to argue the facts about images and how that digital images don’t hinder the desire to see the original. True story.

        1. My tone (some of which I’ve repaired) allowed you to avoid the point, which is that there is clearly no actual critic who made that point for this article–the author tried to manufacture controversy in an article that didn’t need it, not-quoting non-existent critics because no reasonably quotable person would take that position today.

  2. If you look at the paintings (at least in the samples I viewed) , you’ll see specular highlights from Google’s lack of use of polarizing film and filters. A skilled photographer would never allow this to happen.

    Google has the benefit of unlimited money and time. But they lack quality. Maybe most people don’t care.

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