The D.C. Docent

Google Begins Virtual Art World Domination, Albeit it Awkwardly

This past week, Google launched Art Project, a new website which allows visitors to virtually tour selected rooms in museum collections from all around the world, including the Tate Modern in London, the Met in NY, the Uffizi in Florence, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and The Freer Gallery here in DC. Currently, 385 museum rooms are online with more additions planned for the future.

Many of the participating museums already allow web visitors extensive views of their collections online, so what makes Google’s venture different? For one, the virtual tours include a 360-degree view of rooms and an ability to zoom in on individual paintings. And what a zoom! Most of the paintings provide a zoom capacity which provides incredible detail, but at least 17 select works allow a zoom-in that shows detail not normally visible to the naked eye. This is due to the gigapixel resolution photo-capturing process that was used; translated: in some cases, paintings are being magnified enough so that the most minute of details present in canvas, paint texture or brushstroke are clearly visible. The other supercool feature is the “view in darkness” button, which is only available for select works, but allows you to see an x-ray/nightvision image of the work.

Although I was initially impressed by the sheer amount of content online, and the zoom capacity, I found the navigation options to be unwieldy, awkward and not intuitive. Also, the information provided in a sidebar to each work lacks context and feels bulky and sparse at the same time. It seems, given the thoughtfulness and innovation that went into the technology used and on view here, that the site design and navigation would be equally innovative. Not so. It feels as if Google simply decided to post its media files without giving much thought to the context, because they wanted to get a head start on beating someone else to the punch.   

All-in-all, I think Google has the right idea, but they’ve somehow gotten it wrong in the rollout. People want an “experience” when they visit an art museum, a way to connect to history and image; I think the same is true for online experiences, especially in an era when technology and web-design can make viewing art online something beautiful, innovative and special to interact with. Clearly, Google’s got a long way to go, let’s hope they get there.