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Since it launched the Google Art Project five years ago, Google’s been pouring serious money and time into efforts to make art and culture accessible to everyone (who has the internet and appropriate devices, of course), from digitizing collections to offering virtual tours of museums. The site’s latest tool may be the culmination of its assorted projects, all placed directly in the palm of your hand.
This week, Google launched an update of its less-than-a-year-old iOS and Android app, upon which someone bestowed the reasonable but thoroughly un-fun name, Google Arts & Culture. The changes, which center around a massive revamp of its search features, are actually pretty cool for people simply curious about art, but they may even help researchers discover artworks related to their chosen topics. You may search for artworks by period, by color palette, and even by subject matter. A search for “red velvet” pulled up everything from crimson garments in paintings to furniture with plush trimming to a 15th-century manuscript covered with the material; searching for “pie” served up still lifes and a lot of carefully decorated pie plates from the 1940s; and even “patterned sweater” delivered (I’ve recently been rewatching Twin Peaks). All of these images are zoomable, and I expect they will become more high-resolution as Google Cultural Institute sends its Google Art Camera around the world. Of course, your results remain within the limits of Google’s partners, but with more than 250 institutions in over 40 countries participating, the network is pretty broad — and it’s likely to grow bigger.
Additional features the app offers include a daily digest that highlights a partner institution, an artist “born on this day,” and a “today in history” moment; as well as, naturally, a Google Cardboard option for those who want to take virtual reality tours of participating museums.
All of this is also accessible online, but one major benefit of having the app at hand is that you can use its Art Recognizer, a new tool that will apparently allow you to point your device at any artwork in a partner museum and receive relevant information. A lot of apps on the market currently claim this “Shazam for art” model, but a lot of these apps simply don’t function as well as intended since they don’t actually work directly with the organizations in charge of the art. But this is Google, and besides having a network of partners, it has heaps of money as well as the help of experts. So this will probably work pretty well. For now, Art Recognizer is available in only three locations — London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC — but the company is planning to have this feature available at museums around the world. Plus, the tool is a retort to any critic who might say that Google, with all its digitization efforts, is encouraging people to stick to their screens and skip a trip to the museum.