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

By Philip Kennicott
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.

"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.

The project will almost inevitably raise simmering concerns about Google's extraordinary power and influence in the world of online culture. Google Books has proved an extraordinary boon to scholars, both amateur and professional, but also raised concerns that even while the books available online are in the public domain, Google may develop a monopoly on access to them. While art museums may be happy to participate in the project, not all of them will want to surrender access to high-resolution images of their collections, which they use to make T-shirts, posters and other merchandise.

"It opens us up to a world of access, but it raises the possibility of a shift in control that some people are bothered by, and others are not," said the Toledo Museum's Kennedy.

First exposure to the project also suggests that Google is still thinking in basic terms about how to make cultural information available on the Web: Digitize and upload. The galleries approached are all standard tourist destinations, and the works subjected to the gigapixel project are all iconic, perhaps over-famous works. As an archival tool, it would be more interesting to digitize temporary exhibitions, to keep a permanent record of material that may have been borrowed and assembled from various collections for a particular scholarly purpose.

And the full potential of this technology may not emerge until it has been connected to more robust social-networking technologies, when the "empty room" feel of the current imagery is replaced by the "full room" of conversation and interaction with other virtual museum-goers.

Marsha Semmel, deputy director for museums at the Institute of Museum and Library Services, said that it is important for the future of online collections to create connections between material held by different institutions. Her organization, a U.S. government agency that supports museums and libraries, has funded projects that create ways of "tagging" images, including tags created by people who aren't experts or academics. The challenge, and the opportunity, is not just to open up access to art online, but to facilitate research and exploration across institutional boundaries.

And there is still an immense amount of work to be done to create a digital experience that better mimics the psychology of both looking and browsing. Asked if his team had worked with experts who study the psychology and physiology of how people actually look at art, Sood said that had been left to experts at the respective museums.

Which means that experiencing art through Google Art will have its frustrations. One of the images that will be made available through the new portal is Hans Holbein's 1533 "The Ambassadors," held by the National Gallery in London. The painting includes an image of a skull, painted in anamorphic perspective, which makes it highly distorted when seen face-on, but legible when seen from a sharp side angle. Will the effect translate into online viewing?

"It's tough," said Sood. "We tried, we wanted to get that effect." He said it appears to better effect in the gigapixel version, but not so well in the walk-through function.

"Nothing beats the first-person experience," said Sood.

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