Virtual reality: Google Art Project

Google’s recent expansion of its online art service offers art enthusiasts everywhere the opportunity to explore galleries and their masterpieces no matter where they are located. Daisy Carrington considers the merits of the service and the impact it might have on the industry

A little over a year ago, Google took its first step in revolutionising the art world as we know it. Partnering with 17 museums across the globe, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum and London’s The Tate Britain, the internet giant set up the Google Art Project, a porthole allowing users to view some of the world’s best art collections from the comfort of their own home.

Even more impressive, spectators could glimpse a handful of chosen pieces in astonishing detail, down to the individual brushstroke, thanks to gigapixel photo-capturing technology. The project also offered 360-degree virtual walking tours of the participating museums, and allowed viewers to pick and choose their favourite artworks, and to curate them in their own, personal, online galleries.

The project, however, had some glitches. Many argued it was too Eurocentric, and some found fault with the layout, which they deemed clunky and difficult to navigate. Google responded to both criticisms in April, when it improved its search functions, and partnered with an additional 134 institutions in 40 different countries.

The Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar was the first Middle Eastern institution to participate. For them, the Google Art Project represents a tremendous opportunity.

“We hope this online experience can help eliminate preconceptions about Islamic Art, such as misunderstandings that it cannot include figural art or secular subjects,” said the museum’s director, Aisha Al Khater. She views the museums inclusion not only as a tool to educate viewers, but as a means of learning from them as well.

“We’re excited to learn which artworks interest them the most, and what interesting details they’ll discover via the high-resolution Gigapixel function for our selected object.

The project has expanded its reach throughout Asia, Africa and South America as well, adding venerable institutions such as Museu de Arte Moderna in Sao Paulo, where users can get up close to the best in Brazilian street art, and The Rock Art Research Institute in Johannesburg, which gives viewers a chance to look at millennia-old cave paintings.

For the most part, the art world has embraced the project.

“What it’s really doing is expanding the ability of people who can’t access these resources first hand. The collections of the Louvre, or the Hermitage, for example, are no longer just for people who manage to get there,” says Elizabeth Merritt, the director of the Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Association of Museums. Furthermore, she notes, contrary to what some skeptics may believe, the Google Art Project actually promotes real-life museum visits.

“The only data that we’ve seen so far all enforces the fact that engaging virtually makes people more likely to go to museums, not less,” she says.