Reviewed June 2014
Anna Leicht, MSI Candidate
University of Michigan
In February 2011, Google launched the Google Art Project (GAP), as part of Google’s broader Cultural Institute, which, in partnership with hundreds of art museums from around the world, provides free access to thousands of high-resolution images.
The GAP has indisputable value as an educational resource given its flexibility and ease of use, enabling users to study artwork in incredible detail, tour museums virtually, and curate personal collections. The functionality facilitates both focused research but also casual discovery, benefiting a wide range of users, from students and academics, to the general public.
The GAP employs many of Google technologies, giving users a distinctly digital, highly interactive art experience. Users can search or browse works using a variety of refinements such as collection, artist, medium, or date, and can then view the images in the “microscope view,” the “museum view,” or in “My Galleries.”
The microscope view enables users to zoom in on the images, allowing for close examination of a work, something not typically possible in a physical museum setting. The “museum view” employs Google’s Street View technology to tour museums virtually, which can be quite captivating.
However, this particular type of virtual experience falls short of replicating a leisurely stroll through a gallery; navigation can feel awkward and it can be difficult to find a good angle to view the artwork. Nevertheless, the “museum view” provides that critical context for those seeking to understand curatorial decisions, a private collector’s master plan for the collection, e.g. Isabella Stewart Gardener, or the artwork’s place within a given space, such as the Doge’s Palace. Anyone with a Google account can sign in to curate their own collections in “My Galleries,” a valuable feature which allows users to bring together works, in one digital place, from institutions throughout the world. This is a particularly helpful feature given that many artists’ oeuvres are often scattered across several continents. In addition, “My Galleries” acts as a space where disparate works can be examined side by side. Users can also share their personal collections through a variety of social media outlets, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
Museum View of Doge’s Palace
Museums select which works will appear in GAP’s collection, as well as which artworks are visible in GAP’s “Museum View.” At the moment, the majority of the images are in the public domain or without any copyright restrictions. Consequently, the subsequent overrepresentation of public domain works has limited GAP’s effectiveness as a research resource. Users will also notice that many works of art are blurred beyond recognition in the “Museum View.” This is a deliberate tactic, intended to obscure restricted works while providing users with an overall impression of the gallery they are touring. Kenneth Crews and other expert opinions on copyright have argued that the museum views could be considered fair use but there is little evidence that museums or Google are eager to dive into the murky waters of copyright law.
The GAP has been applauded for its educational value and free access but equally criticized for its inability to build a comprehensive representation of global art. ARTstor easily surpasses the GAP in scope and content, but it is neither free nor affordable to many institutions. Moreover, there are free image resources, such as the Getty Open Content program or the David Rumsey Visual Collections, that offer valuable content with advanced search capabilities as well as the standard features for zooming in and juxtaposing images. But what sets the GAP apart is its technological platform; users can interact with art collections in new and exciting ways. Users can easily examine the brushstrokes of a painting and then, in seconds, view that same painting on its wall at a museum. There is no denying that the technology used in the GAP, in combination with the digital collection of artworks, constitutes a significant cultural resource. However, issues relating to copyright currently are limiting the content of the GAP, and prevent the project from building a comprehensive online collection of our world’s precious art objects.