Why the Google Art Project is Important

Images of Van Gogh's Bedroom from the Google Art Project

Our schools and libraries are being radically re-imagined for the digital age, but what about our museums? The New York Public Library, for example, is bravely (and controversially) rethinking its Fifth Avenue flagship building. Last month, MIT and Harvard announced edX, a partnership to offer free online courses, and last fall, Stanford offered three massive open online courses (MOOC) to hundreds of thousands of students for free, and Khan Academy provided 6.1 million unique users with free instruction in March 2012 alone. Museums, on the other hand, have remained largely insular and focused on their institutional identity. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the most recent digital innovation comes not from the museums themselves but from Google, which launched the second iteration of the Google Art Project last month.

Google faces numerous challenges among academics; nevertheless, we should recognize that Google’s Art Project has done something extraordinary for both museums and for education. A small team based in London persuaded more than 150 museums from around the world to share more than 32,400 high-resolution images beyond their own institutional boundaries.

This is a really big deal.

For the first time in history it is easy for non-specialists to explore and closely examine art from museums across the globe on a single website. There have been other initiatives that have moved in this direction, but never with the scope or functionality of the Google Art Project. The Art Project isn’t finished. It needs more museums and more art. It needs improved search and filtering tools. And the public needs better ways to discover and contribute new narratives about art’s history. Despite these weaknesses, the educational potential is tremendous.

Meanwhile, many museum professionals (Nina Simon, Nancy Proctor, Seb Chan to name just a few), have been grappling for some time with the question of the future of the museum (see AAM’s Center for the Future of the Museum). And those of us who have worked in the area of museum technology have asked specifically about the future of the museum website. Koven Smith, Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum asked more than a year ago, “What things do museums do *exclusively* because of tradition? If you were building a museum from scratch, what would you do differently?” Since born-digital institutions often succeed where legacy institutions struggle, this is an important question. Mia Ridge, whose blog Open Objects, has addressed this question often, responded, “a museum invented now would be conversational and authoritative – here’s this thing, and here’s why it’s cool.”

The question of conversation is key and it’s been central to Smarthistory.khanacademy.org’s pedagogy. In many ways, scholarship at its best is conversation. But up until now, museums have conversed very little with one another—either on or offline.

Here are two examples of how the Google Art Project opens the conversation. In 1889, Vincent van Gogh painted three canvases depicting his bedroom in Arles; these now reside in three different museums. Only the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam illustrates another version on its website and remarkably, none of the three museums link to the paintings at the other institutions.

Now imagine a student studying Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting, Olympia, in Janson’s History of Art textbook. The book mentions Titian’s Venus of Urbino as an important source for Manet, but doesn’t reproduce this older, Renaissance painting. Even at 1152 pages, the Janson text must be extremely selective for reasons of space and cost. Of course a museum website has no such constraints. Nevertheless, although the Musée d’Orsay, home to Olympia, also mentions the Titian, it provides no link to the painting or to the Galleria degli Uffizi where the painting hangs.

In contrast, the Google Art Project allows visitors to create and share a gallery where these paintings can be viewed side by side; it also includes links to their respective museum collections (where they exist). Imagine the educational impact if museums put together online galleries like this one and included commentary from curators at multiple institutions aimed at a non-scholarly audience.

The Art Project succeeds in large part because it relies on museum expertise—one of the great strengths of the museum in the digital age. Too often museums don’t surface in a simple Google image search. General searches are more likely to return unreliable sites hawking reproductions. In contrast, visitors to the Art Project access current and reliable information. In fact, the Art Project highlights the relative scarcity of educational text and video provided by museums about their permanent collections, the very content the public is looking for. Museums need to create more free content aimed at a general audience and to do so within the broader context of art’s history. Museums employ curatorial staff that, like college and university faculty, have deep knowledge in their areas of expertise, yet too little of that expertise makes its way onto the museum website. Instead, expensive, narrowly targeted, scholarly exhibition catalogs remain the focus of museum publishing.

Naturally, linking and creating content is not free, but it doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive either. Links go bad and have to be updated and there is, of course, always a resource issue. There are ready solutions but such issues are framed by a bigger concern. Namely, should museums point visitors away from their own collection? Museums don’t use the word competitor, but this concept informs such considerations. In an era when education is increasingly occurring outside of traditional learning institutions, we believe that the role of the museum is increasingly important.

There are some hopeful signs. Recently, a few museums (The National Gallery of Art, The Brooklyn Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for example) have begun to offer public domain images for download. We hope more museums will recognize that in the digital era, the old model of controlling and charging for reproductions of public domain work flies in the face of their mission. Museums, and the artists’ rights organizations (such as ARS and VAGA) and the estates they work with, need to do far more to make the shared cultural heritage they hold in trust, accessible. Peter Samis, Associate Curator, Interpretive Media at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently asked, “Are the artworks ours to give? Are they ours to withhold?”

Now that the value of a global art platform is evident, will museums think differently about sharing resources with each other and the public? The Google Art Project shows what can happen when museums work in parallel; now imagine what could happen if museums choose to work together.

Disclaimer: Harris and Zucker created the Khan Academy videos on the Google Art Project

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