When Google Earth launched several years ago it was a rather different beast to the one around today. Aside from the obvious lack of Street-view, it also required downloading, and the only locations marked out were the most obvious and high profile landmarks. The internet was, of course, quick to utilise the full potential of this version, soon locating all the crop circles, boating accidents, and giant penis drawings the aerial photographs had to offer. The early Google Earth was - in effect - a toy. It was only later additions, refinements, and its proper incorporation into Google’s search engine that turned it into a useful tool.
...not that you can't still use it the old way of course
Which brings us to Google’s latest endeavour, Google Art Project.
A collaboration with 17 different art galleries in 9 different countries, Google Art Project (or “Art Project, powered by Google” according to the website’s banner) aims “[…] to enable people to discover and view more than a thousand artworks online in extraordinary detail.” or in other words; to make gallery content available online. So far this sounds not that dissimilar to the type of “virtual gallery” that many institutions have already had on their own websites for years. The big difference with what Google are doing is that it brings all of these disparate galleries into one place, and under a single interface.
Outside of the organisation of the project and the aforementioned interface (which we’ll get back to later) Google has taken a step back when it comes to the content. The choices of works - and additional information about them - are all down to the participating galleries.
This is the first point at which we encounter problems, or at least, noticeable inconsistencies. Tate Britain for example, provides two films under the Media menu on the subject of William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea. The first, a reaction piece by writer and magician Alan Moore (“I am not available for children’s parties, it would only upset them”) is nicely balanced by a second, more informative piece by Philippa Simpson. Both films have a feel not dissimilar to the series of short documentaries the gallery produced with Channel 4 in 2003. The experience they have in this area is clear to see.
...as are your nerd credtials if you understand the shirt here.
The experience of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam on the other hand, is clearly not in film. Whist I understand the gallery’s possible unwillingness to produce a film in English, I don’t understand their choice of compromise. For the work Night Watch by Rembrandt*, they have produced a silent one and a half minute slide show of images of all the locations in which the painting has hung. Even if it did actually provide us with the names of these various locations (which for some reason it doesn’t), I would still question the usefulness of this information in such a form.
...so is the painting in the building behind them? The shed to the right? Are they building it? Where the hell am I?
It isn’t just the media however, the written notes are also flawed; the Additional Artwork Information for the piece informs us:
“The names of the eighteen militiamen portrayed in the painting are on a shield above the gate. […] We are now only able to match a few names to the faces in the portrait.”
Which names, and to which faces we’re not told, which makes this information less useful, and more of an irritating tease.
Another issue from the galleries is the extent to which the amount of participation varies; New York’s MoMA offers us 17 works, all from a single room (although you can also explore their featureless lobby, if for some reason you’d want to), where as the Uffizi Gallery in Florence has 72 works from 35 different rooms.
However, given time these galleries may well expand their available collections, and given the influence of the other institutions taking part, I’m sure those with lesser media experience will eventually find their feet. So I can’t really criticise any of the participating galleries too harshly at this stage.
Where I will be a little more cutthroat however is when it comes to Google themselves, and the interface they’ve created.
The first major issue with this is the complete lack of a cross gallery search, if you’re looking for a work, but don’t know which gallery it’s located in, the only way to find out is to either select each institution one at a time and search it’s collection, or, open a new window and get the information you need from a different website. One of the benefits of the project is supposed to be that it brings these collections together, so to then separate them again in this way seems to run counter to one of the projects core purposes.
The other problem is with the much-touted “Street-view technology”, which allows you to “walk” around each gallery. This is simply awkward to use; it can be difficult to see works, and get the title and artist label to display, unless you are standing at an exact angle or distance. In some of the more heavily stocked galleries you may also find yourself able to look at a work that it is then impossible to identify, as it hasn’t been made part of gallery’s online collection.
What works very well from the point of view of a car on a road does not translate well to a person walking around an open room, and I can’t see this working at all practically unless Google undertake some serious alterations.
Before I sound as if I’m finding too much fault however, there is one element which Google has done good to make part of the project, and this is it’s most talked about feature; the ability to view artworks in super high resolution. This allows you to zoom in so close to a selection of paintings that you can view the brushwork, cracklature, and even the weave of the canvas. This is a brilliant feature and has been rightly praised. The only unfortunate thing about this, is that at the moment just one piece per gallery has been photographed in this way, and the resolution of the other images is something which (again) varies significantly depending on which institution you’re looking at.
The Google Art Project thus feels very much like a work in progress, the potential for it to become a hugely useful tool is very much there, but for the moment potential is all it is. It’s the next few years, which will decide its fate as either an invaluable resource, or merely the web’s most highly cultured time waster.
In the mean time though, I’m sure the internet will find a use for it.