A trial of the technology Tuesday proved both enticing and frustrating. Images often appeared grainy and washed-out when using the walk-through function. Navigation arrows take a certain dexterity to use, so as not to see paintings at unnatural angles. And if you hit the wrong navigation arrow, you are sometimes thrown out of the museum altogether to an exterior street view. The rooms of the museums are also free of visitors, which would be a rare luxury if you were there in person, but is strangely haunting when exploring online.
Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, called the walk-through technology an interesting experiment, and the kind of experiment that most museums can't produce on their limited budgets. But after experimenting with the tool, she also had questions about whom it would appeal to, and what kind of audience it might find. As someone "who sits at a computer eight hours a day," she wasn't sold on the walk-through function except for museums that she might not be able to visit personally. But she liked another functionality, which Google calls "Create an Artwork Collection," allowing visitors to assemble online personal collections that can be exchanged with other users.
"It certainly fits with the research we've been doing that people like to create their own experiences and their own mash-ups and share them with other people," said Merritt.
But if the walk-through still feels gimmicky, the highest resolution images are a delight. The interface includes a bar for zooming in and out and a marker on the image that indicates where the zoom is happening. It's a useful way of connecting the microscopic and macroscopic landscape of the painting.
"Even though a lot of these images are available on museum Web sites, you cannot really zoom into them with the ease of this Web site," said Sood, from London.
Other institutions participating in the project include Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Among the iconic images that will be available through the gigapixel process are Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night" (from MoMA), Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" (from the Uffizi) and Rembrandt's "Night Watch" (from the Rijksmuseum).
Absent from the list of participants are two of the most popular and important museums in the world, the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay, both in Paris.
"We approached as many museums as we could," said Sood. "But you can only wait so long for people to come on board. We just decided to stop at 17."
A spokeswoman for the National Gallery of Art in Washington says that Google came to take gallery images but never followed up. "They never requested high-resolution images," said the National Gallery's Deborah Ziska. "We don't know why."
But if the project is successful, there will be more museums added. Currently, visitors can access 385 gallery rooms, including more than 1,000 high-resolution images of works by 486 artists.