When a team from the Google Art Project visited the rarified corridors of the Indian cultural bureaucracy last year and offered to gigapixelate and upload museum collections, senior official Vijay Madan grew very suspicious.
“After I condescended to meet them, I asked: What is in it for Google? What’s their agenda? Is there a catch?” Madan recalled Tuesday, inaugurating the partnership between Google and two Indian museums in New Delhi.
The collaborative Google art platform, which partners with 151 museums from 40 countries, began a year ago with the goal of building the mother of all museums online. It uses high-resolution technology to bring to life famous art and artifacts to create near-authentic experiences. While many museums have jumped at the chance to be included, others, such as the Louvre, have balked. The Louvre has yet to give them access to the Mona Lisa.
For Madan, the Google project offers up a second incentive than just recording art. Madan hopes that it may “enthuse” Indian museums to spruce up their act.
Google’s gigapixeling equipment and street-view trolleys, with its zoom-discover-play functions, will enter an uncaring universe of Indian museums. Unlike museums in the United States, which are battling a shortage of funds and growing digital lifestyles, Indian museums suffer from a debilitating crisis of imagination and are trapped in an uninspiring sameness – beautiful objects indifferently displayed, impenetrable labels, lack of storytelling and ponderous book-on-the-wall text panels. It is not uncommon to encounter peeling wall paint, cobwebs and even potted plants placed perilously close to moisture-sensitive 12th century sculptures of dancing gods.
“Our museums are in neglect. But this kind of global attention will be a trigger for our museums to match up with the best in the world,” Madan said.
Among the 250 objects from New Delhi’s National Museum and the National Gallery of Modern Art that are now displayed in the portal are a medieval miniature painting titled “Radha and Krishna on a boat of love,” a 19th century oil painting “Woman holding a Fruit,” a 1,500-year-old Buddha head and a 4,500-year-old clay toy-cart.
India does not have a museum-going culture. Amit Sood, the India-born head of Google Art Project, said his rare visits to Indian museums during his childhood did not last more than 15 minutes. “We are putting Indian museums in the global spotlight, in the front and center of discussions about access,” Sood said. He plans to gigapixelate ancient Indian temples and monuments next.
But despite such initiatives, access will continue to be a problem in India for some time. Operating the art portal requires a high-speed Internet connection. Although India has 120 million Internet users, only 13.5 million have a broadband connection.