02.01.11

Google Takes Street View Inside 17 Museums for Virtual Tours

The Internet giant is partnering with 17 great museums to offer virtual tours that let users see the works up close—really close. Blake Gopnik takes a stroll and wonders whether the technology will overpower the art.

Museums can offer one thing no one else can: intimate, in-person encounters with great works of art, no bells or whistles necessary.

This morning, Google and 17 great museums are trumpeting a new initiative, The Art Project, that is all bells and whistles, but ones that are so impressive they could pass for an orchestra. That means there’s some risk they’ll drown out the art.

The Art Project takes Google Maps’ Street View technology and brings it indoors. Instead of exploring a cityscape, the project lets you take a virtual stroll through rooms in great museums. Instead of zooming in on a dry cleaner or restaurant, you zoom in on fine paintings and sculptures. Sometimes, you can keep zooming until you’re at a sub-brushstroke level.

None of this is all that new: Museums, including some in this project, have offered virtual tours and clickable enlargements for more than a decade. What Google has done, at its own expense, is made the user experience more seamless and elegant than ever before.

With van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you can now zoom in, and in, and in, until you see the track of each hair in the painter’s brush as it moves the paint across his canvas; cracks in the paint’s surface start looking like canyons.

Each of the 17 museums in the project has provided one work recorded by Google at this “gigapixel” level, but also many others, more than 1,000 so far, at a more standard high resolution. These still let you drill down to see a single eye in a portrait or a grape in a still life. The museums also provide information, mostly in nothing more than wall-label depth, about the works on virtual view.

MoMA, like some other museums, was relatively modest in its contribution to the project: Its virtual tour only covers two rooms. (Pictures by more recently dead artists, many of which MoMA collects, present copyright problems.)

The Uffizi in Florence, the world’s finest storehouse of Renaissance art, has made dozens of its galleries available to Google’s Street View technicians; they guide a proprietary camera rig through each room. The Uffizi’s gigapixel image is Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus, now to be explored more intimately than might once have seemed proper.

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That’s one of the strange things about Google’s Art Project: It allows us, maybe even encourages us, to look at art as it was never meant to be seen. Van Gogh liked his heavy brushwork, but couldn’t have imagined it becoming fetishized online. In Giovanni Bellini’s 1480 Saint Francis in the Desert, the gigapixeled painting from the Frick Collection in New York, you can see such tiny details in the landscape background that you risk losing sight of the holy man the picture’s about. The techno-fun of zooming and panning and scrolling may distract from the sacred, subtle contemplative pleasures at the heart of the painting.

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Thanks to Google and its Art Project, we may look closer than ever before, but it’s not at all clear that we’ll be looking better. At its best, the one-on-one, hours-long, in-the-flesh encounter with a work of art in a museum can be thought of as an antidote to the disembodied, Google-powered rush of laptop-life. The Art Project risks collapsing the two experiences.

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As usual, these risks come with benefits. Amit Soot is the art-loving Google executive who came up with these tours, as one of the company’s famous “20 percent” projects. (Google-ites are encouraged to spend one day a week working on something outside their normal subject area—the origin of Gmail and Google News.) And Soot says that, growing up in Bombay, “all these museums seemed inaccessible to me…I started enjoying art when I went abroad.” He came up with the Art Project as a way to spread the art experience beyond museum walls.

Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, says such virtual outreach works. “The online engagement is absolutely driving people to the museum,” he says. He says the wild proliferation of images on the Web has led to ultra-sophisticated viewers who are definitely aware of the difference between the virtual and the real and are more eager than ever to seek out reality. He cites the near doubling of MoMA attendance over the last decade, and the 40 percent of visitors who launched their visit at MoMA’s own website.

Thanks to Google and its Art Project, we may look closer than ever before, but it’s not at all clear that we’ll be looking better.

But now, when they visit Starry Night, might not those Art Project-ed visitors be a touch disappointed that the painting just sits there, po-faced, demanding their full, old-fashioned attention, without clicks or zooms to make the experience fun?

Blake Gopnik writes about art and design for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He previously spent a decade as chief art critic of the Washington Post and before that was an arts editor and critic in Canada. He has a doctorate in art history from Oxford University, and has written on aesthetic topics ranging from Facebook to gastronomy.