Google Digitizes Famous Art – Amazing New Virtual Museums

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Google Art Project

Google Art Project lets you explore famous works of art in a detail you wouldn't get in a typical tour of a museum. Has the virtual surpassed the physical?

You can now explore some of the world’s most precious works of art to a depth that even their creators may not have known. Search engine giant Google has unveiled their unparalleled Art Project, an interface much like Street View that allows you to explore 17 of humanity’s best art museums. There are more than 1000 priceless works of art by 400+ artists in collections at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, The Tate Britain in London, and many other famous galleries. Each of these extensive gatherings of art is now easily explorable through your computer at no cost. Not only that, but you can explore many of these artworks by zooming in to see individual brush strokes. That’s something only visitors to these museums typically enjoy, and it gets better. At least one painting at each museum has been scanned to absurdly high resolution: 7 to 14 billion pixels. Most people can spend their entire lives visiting museums and never see a painting at such levels of detail. Add in the accompanying search features, video discussions, and detailed accounts of each piece and you can see how the virtual experience may be an improvement upon the physical one. Watch the introduction to the project in the video below, followed by a brief behind the scenes look at its creation. Free, detailed, easily accessible – Google’s Art Project is a beautiful example of the democratizing and enlightening power of technology.

I usually don’t show videos at the maximum size, but I want you to see the wonderful clarity of the paintings included in Google Art Project. Some of these images are simply stunning.

In order to capture the galleries of these famous museums, Google had to adapt their Street View technology so that it could travel indoors. They also had to setup high-resolution photographic systems to capture the gigapixel images of artwork. As you can see in the following video, bicycle driven and hand-pushed cameras helped digitize some of the world’s most valuable art collections. There are nearly endless possibilities of applying these techniques in new arenas, from public plazas to individual homes and buildings. Virtual sightseeing just got a major boost:

Amit Sood, head of the Google Art Project, has interests in expanding the range of the virtual collection his team has created. Not just in the number of paintings and facilities included. He told the Wall Street Journal that, “I want to find the technology to capture three-dimensional art such as Michelangelo’s David. It’s not going to be easy but these are the kinds of things we hope to explore.” It’s conceivable that in the near future we’ll have not just a 1000, but hundreds of thousands of pieces of artwork available to explore freely online.

While there will always be some who prefer the experience of actually seeing art in person, I think that the virtual exploration has wonderful advantages. First, the high resolution seen in the gigapixels images is just extraordinary. Check out The Merchant Georg Gisze at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. You can see such exquisite detail – it’s absurd. We’ve seen entire cities photographed in massive 26 gigapixel images, and Google’s spending half that on a few meters of canvas. I don’t think I could get close enough to explore a painting in this way in a real museum. I would likely need special equipment and permission from the curators. This simply outdoes the real world experience. Likewise, Google has included videos, text, and search into the Art Project interface to make it an even more enriching medium than being there in person. I think it’s safe to say that Google is providing something here that most of us could never have hoped to experience before.

And it’s freakin’ free and online.

The importance of that accessibility can’t be over-stressed. Most of the world doesn’t live near these famous museums of art, but more and more of the world will have internet access. Google Art Project is giving priceless works of art to the masses. Think of what that could do for art appreciation or art education. What’s the price to take a class of kids to the MOMA? Or to the Palace of Versailles? Now, that cost is basically zero. Just fire up the internet and take your class on an indepth tour without the crowds or the fuss. As more and more museums are included you could take your class on virtual tours of the most obscure galleries of the world.

Or forget classes, what about online education? We’ve seen how video lessons from the Khan Academy could revolutionize the teaching of math. The same could be done for art. Google has a ‘create your own collection’ feature which lets you share your personal tour of the Art Project via social media or URL link. That could form the basis for a kickass online educational program on classical art. Google Art Project is another piece of the digital education puzzle that’s fallen into place.

I’m getting a little too excited here, but it’s hard to do otherwise. There’s just so much that is right about this endeavor, and the things that are less than ideal are likely to be improved upon as time passes. Right now, most of the high resolution images are slow to load. If you have a low speed internet connection you’re going to need some considerable patience. Hopefully we’ll all have broadband connections in the years ahead. Google Art Project also doesn’t quite capture the size and stature of the museum architecture itself, but perhaps the 3D imaging techniques Sood wants to develop will help compensate for that.

If Google Art Project continues to grow in depth and range (and I pray that it does) I think it will become a precious online resource. Certainly never as used as search engines or Wikipedia or even video games, but precious all the same. When people talked about how the internet could help improve and expand our collective consciousness, I think it was projects like this they had in mind. Google Art Project isn’t the first virtual museum tour (not by far), it’s not even the most high tech, but it is a wonderful collection of artwork and hopefully the beginning of a trend that will bring more and more of our most precious creations into the digital world.

Stop reading this and go explore Google Art Project. It’s incredible.

The seventeen locations now included in G.A.P are Alte Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin; Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.; The Frick Collection, New York City; Gemäldegalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid; Museo Thyssen – Bornemisza, Madrid; Museum Kampa, Prague; National Gallery, London; Palace of Versailles, near Paris; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia; State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; Tate Britain, London; Uffizi Gallery, Florence; and Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

[image and video credit: Google Art Project]
[sources: Google Blog (Amit Sood), Wall Street Journal]

Discussion — 11 Responses

  • Ivan Malagurski February 3, 2011 on 5:10 am

    Amazing! Google really should be congratulated for this…

  • Joey1058 February 3, 2011 on 12:10 pm

    Just from watching the two videos you linked to, it’s obvious that thousands of man hours went into this labor of love. I’m tempted to think of this as “classics meets deviantArt”. It sounds really exciting!

  • Anon February 4, 2011 on 1:30 pm

    I was as disappointed by how clumsy it is to move around in the virtual space. Learn from the game developers google…

    • Personanongratajoe Anon February 7, 2011 on 2:11 pm

      I agree. This certainly in the beta stages at this point. When I tried traveling from one room to another I found it impossible. I did try it without learning how to use the navigation tools, however. It made me think of how complicated the human nervous system is and the wondrous things our brains can do with a good set of eyes and legs and arms.

  • PamVanLonden February 4, 2011 on 7:28 pm

    No women artists are represented that I could find. So unfortunate! And the site does not yet have a feedback link to comment about this problem. Perhaps they can rename the project Google’s Men’s Art Project?

    • Speaking for all men PamVanLonden February 4, 2011 on 8:38 pm

      Go to the kitchen and fetch me a beer, now!

      • Personanongratajoe Speaking for all men February 7, 2011 on 2:13 pm

        Please, don’t open your mouth like that. It only makes it harder to defend you.

      • mhm Speaking for all men February 14, 2011 on 8:00 am

        wow…just wow
        so dumb

  • James February 6, 2011 on 1:55 pm

    Louvre or gtfo!

  • Alan Broadmoor February 7, 2011 on 12:51 am

    Thanks for this article, Aaron. I sent this to my mother, who lacks the income to make many art museum trips but loves art both aesthetically and for fertilizing her own art skills.

  • T Milard February 8, 2011 on 12:09 am

    Beautifull interent site.
    But I am wondering : is street view technology enough to wonder around in a museum ?