Exploring Google’s Art Project

I was reading the New York Times online (thanks, Rupert) when I came across an interesting art article about Google’s Art Project. Intrigued, I popped on over to the site, curious about what Google’s diverse staff was up to now.

The Art Project is an online view of many of the top museums around the world. From the comfort of your living room, bedroom, or office space, you can museum-hop to places such as London’s Tate Britain or New York’s Met or even the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands.

Having been to a handful of these galleries as a bit of an art lover myself, I was a little unsure how the experience would translate to a digital space. What I enjoy most about museums is the opportunity to be in a deliberately-designed space with pieces of varying size and media illuminated by lighting that delights my photography-lovin’ heart. There’s something so magical about the ability to approach a sculpture from far away and let it capture your attention, perhaps as you were even walking to a different piece nearby, or to get up close and personal (under the watchful eye of the nearby guards, of course) with a painting, marveling at the detail and brushstrokes on the canvas as you ponder the artist’s frame of mind and meaning behind each stroke and color.


On the positive end, the Google team did a great job of keeping the design minimal so that the piece can “speak” a bit more. Also, the ability to share your favorite artwork and comments with others is much better than relying on strict a Google Images search. I found it neat to get reacquainted with pieces I’ve seen before, like Botticelli’s ubiquitous The Birth of Venus, but it doesn’t quite do the works justice.

But my initial misgivings were confirmed as I encountered a “street view meets museum”-style approach. Something is lost in the midst of navigating art spaces with arrows and using the family Google Maps magnification icons to “zoom into” works by artists like my favorite, Van Gogh. Features like “Explore the Museum” fall a bit flat within this pseudo 3-dimensional space (even on the gigantic 1920 x 1200 resolution of my second monitor) in contrast to an in-person encounter.

Now to be fair, perhaps Google’s intent wasn’t to faithfuly replicate a trip to the museum by any shade or degree, but it seems like they could push the envelope just a bit more by considering further how to translate the museum experience to this less tactile medium. Perhaps they could build in functionality that allows a visitor to “bookmark” which pieces they want to see as the plan a trip to the museum. And maybe there’s a way to capture that “serendipity” of exploration in a way that feels more intriguing and can stir that element of wonder that I get when I can see several pieces in a room at once and zero in on what captures my fancy. Or perhaps bringing the buried Visitor Guide videos up to the surface a bit more might help generate more interest upon arrival. Or another approach could be to offer a few different ways to explore the collections other than a rote list, like a map of the museums in the collection or a tour of all the museum’s pieces by period or method or even color.

In any case, Google’s Art Project is definitely an interesting concept and has a lot of potential. I  think the Art Project is a great way to get introduced to the art holdings at a particular museum and is worth a look. But don’t be fooled — it won’t replace the real-life experience, so be sure to plan an actual visit while you’re at it as well!

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