Google teams with international museums to zoom in on art
Using its Street View technology, the internet giant will allow people to virtually visit galleries and view works at gigapixel resolution
By Anny Shaw. Web only
Published online: 01 February 2011
London. The art world took another small step towards virtual reality today with the launch of the Google Art Project. Developed in collaboration with 17 museums around the world—including London's Tate, New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Metropolitan Museum, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, Madrid's Museo Reina Sofia, Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie and the Uffizi in Florence—Google has brought its Street View technology inside for the first time, enabling internet users to navigate galleries as well as view individual works in minute detail.
“The internet has changed the way we talk to our public,” Tate director Nicholas Serota said at a press conference in London this morning. “Today is an opportunity to take another great step forward.” While viewers can take tours of displays, stopping to zoom in on one of 1,060 individual works, each museum has also selected one work from their collections that has been photographed using gigapixel technology—at a resolution of up to 14 billion pixels—allowing audiences to home in on details that would be invisible to the naked eye. “Ten years ago museums were obsessed with getting thousands of objects onto the screen, now we are looking at a few works in depth,” says Serota.
Tate has plumped for Chris Ofili's No Woman, No Cry, 1998, a mixed media painting of Doreen Lawrence, the mother of London teenager Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993. “We wanted to have a work that would complement the historic works in our collection,” says Serota, “and to choose an image made in the last 15 years about an issue that is highly relevant to many people in this country.” Users can also opt to view the painting in the dark, revealing the tribute Ofili wrote in phosphorescent paint on the canvas.
While all 17 museums have selected paintings to be photographed at gigapixel resolution—revealing the cracks and crevasses of, say, Van Gogh's The Starry Night, 1889, which hangs in MoMA—Jane Burton, the head of content and creative director at Tate, says works in other media may also benefit from microscopic viewing. “Digital photography is an interesting one,” she says. “A detailed Gursky might work really well with this technology.”
Although the Street View shots of the galleries are somewhat blurred and grainy (“This is just the first step; there will be many improvements over the years,” says Nelson Mattos, the vice president of product management and engineering at Google), the gigapixel images offer an undeniably enhanced viewing experience. But will this deter visitors from entering the museum? “Has Street View stopped people from travelling?” asks Mattos. “No, exactly the opposite has happened. Every piece of technology that has exposed people to the treasures in museums has encouraged them to come and see the real thing.”
According to Mattos, who declined to comment on costs, the project is an attempt to democratise art through technology. “Art has been hidden from the eyes of many for many years,” he says. “This project represents a new way; a new step forward.” Despite the democratic spirit of the project, it remains to be seen whether closely guarded and rarely lent works such as MoMA's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon are given an online presence.
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