National Treasures: Google Art Project unlocks riches of world's galleries

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 8:56 PM

Google is bringing its "street view" technology indoors. With the announcement Tuesday in London of the Google Art Project, the Internet giant jumps into the online art arena with tools that will allow Web surfers to move through 17 of the most prominent art galleries in the world, with the option to look more closely at individual artworks, including some that will be digitized so exhaustively that individual paint strokes and hairline cracks in the surface will be visible.

The project will give high-profile exposure to the idea of creating "virtual" galleries that museums have been exploring for years. It may also help build collaborations between institutions that have been working separately on digitization projects. But will it reinvent the museum experience? It's not clear that even Google can do that. Yet.

Included among the institutions that have teamed up with Google are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Frick Collection in New York, and the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington. Museums in London, Madrid, Moscow, Amsterdam and Florence, among others, are also contributing.

The Freer has allowed a popular work by James McNeill Whistler, "The Princess From the Land of Porcelain," to be digitized through the "gigapixel" process, which stitches together multiple high-resolution images. Now available online, the Google Art reproduction makes it possible to see the faintest trace of white paint Whistler used to make his subject's eyes glisten, as well as the nubby, gridlike texture of the canvas underneath.

"On average there are 7 billion pixels" per image, said Amit Sood, leader of the Google Art Project. "This is a thousand times more than the average digital camera."

"The giga-pixel experience brings us very close to the essence of the artist through detail that simply can't be seen in the gallery itself," said Julian Raby, director of the Freer, in a statement. "Far from eliminating the necessity of seeing artworks in person, Art Project deepens our desire to go in search of the real thing."

Other art museum directors who have seen the technology are impressed by it, though not convinced it will substitute for a scholarly eye in direct contact with an actual painting. Brian Kennedy, director of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, said the gigapixel images can bring out details that might not be visible to ordinary museum-goers in a gallery. But scholars will still want a three-dimensional view of the art, which even a very high-resolution two-dimensional image can't provide.

Many important art museums have already produced extensive databases of their collections, and provide access to some of their collections online. The Google Art Project differs in its combination of a "walk-through" function, letting visitors see how paintings are hung and organized as they move virtually through the collection, with the ability in some cases to see high-resolution images of specific works. It also brings prominent galleries from around the world together through a single interface, with Google's extraordinary online reach.

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.

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