A Case Study on Google Arts & Culture (Ruizhong & Yasheng)

A visual illustration of different layers of Interface

TEAM: BEAUTY♡ PRETTY☆ SOCIETY♀ (Ruizhong & Yasheng)

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine)
James McNeill Whistler
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We decided to use this painting in the famous Peacock Room as an example to demonstrate different layers of interface involved in Google’s Arts & Culture project. We will illustrate different steps of representation in the process of digitalizing the experience of viewing this painting.

Layer 1: The painting itself

The description of the painting can be found on Freer Museum’s website as well as on the Google Arts & Culture site;

This painting, popularly know as “The Princess from the Land of Porcelain”, which hangs over the mantel in the Peacock Room, was part of a series of costume pictures undertaken by Whistler in mid-1860s in which western models appear in Asian dress, surrounded by Chinese and Japanese objects from Whistler’s own collections. Whistler never visited Asia, and his creative borrowing of eastern objects and influences was motivated by a desire to suggest the temporal and spatial distance of a foreign, and therefore imaginary realm, rather than by an interest in Asian cultures per se.

As described in the description, this painting is not intended to showcase affinity towards Asian culture per se, rather a display of the imaginary. Orientalism aside, the painting is quite interesting as its dialectic between the West and the East is represented through both its inside and outside architecture. The inside architecture – the painting as a whole and symbolic element in the composition, generating multiple interpretants to feature the clash between the Eastern and the Western cultures. The image of a white woman in vaguely Eastern outfit standing among Eastern items comprises a number of tokens together function as icons (e.g. images of the Chinese vase), Indices (e.g. the posture of the lady pays homage to the Japanese style – Ukiyo-e), and Symbols (e.g. the mixture of different cultural elements indicate the painter’s desire to showcase his love for arts in all forms).

Now the immediate outside architecture – the golden frame of the painting. The frame of the painting is a solid golden frame with detailed decorations and this frame adds a new layer of interface by enhancing the luxurious quality of the painting.

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So the painting itself is an interface between the author and his audience, through which they can form a mutual understanding of what the painting signifies.

Layer 2: The painting in the Peacock Room and the Freer Museum

A further outside architecture of this painting is also a codependent element – the Peacock Room. Codependent in the sense that they compensate each other to signifier the underlying meaning of this room. From this image we can see that all these objects work together to add a new layer of interface for people to have an immersive understanding of the Peacock Room. Of course, one can make the argument that the room and the painting together is an interface as a part of the Freer installation, but we decided to separate them because we are emphasizing on the painting. From this image, we can see a clear four-step meta happening, we are looking at an interface (the painting) within an interface (the room) that resides in another interface (the museum) through a digital interface (the computer screen).

And this brings us to the next layer of interface – digital representation.

Layer 3: Digital computer interface of painting

We go meta again when we watch the painting on the computer screen in the context of Google Arts & Culture website.

The material screen is a pixel-mapped substrate. The painting itself in fact is represented by a set of pixels. These pixels are organized in a specific way to resemble the original painting. In the computer screen mediated painting, the palette of the original, as well as the figures and objects depicted in the original are highly resembled. Apart from the painting, the explanatory texts and audios beside the digital mediated painting also an example of imitating the description in paper and the curator’s voice in the physical museum. Therefore, the digital representations are taking advantage of preexisting interfaces.


But it also has something new, which an actual museum cannot do. In Alan Kay’s vision, this is a win for the virtual museum.Picture2

However, what we see from the screen are a series of semi-static “screenshots” of the painting as well as the surroundings, the settings in the Peacock Room. The 3-dimensional virtual tour of the room imitates the experience of on-site visiting. Watching the painting on screen is definitely different from watching the painting in the Peacock Room. Something might be missing during the remediation, such as the texture of the layered brushstrokes of the oil painting, the smell of the ancient wooden shelves and furniture, the ambient light in the room, etc.

Layer 4: Digital computer interface of Google Arts & Culture

By mapping around the webpage of Google Arts & Culture, the construction of the website serves to guide us around the website by the side bar and the scrolling content.



Scrolling Content

Scrolling Content

First, all these texts and images are buttons that link to another page. This function is realized by the hyperlink. Hyperlink as a meta language has no physical quality, rather an indice that directs you to somewhere else.

Second, the digital representations like icons, indices, and symbols are everywhere on the website. By looking at the side bar, all the icons are taking advantage of the cognitive affordance of other icons on other websites, they are not by any means new.

Take a closer look, the Google Arts & Culture website is a digital representation of a collection of museums in terms of multiple ways of categorizing and sequencing. First, the side bar tries to “guess” what’s in your mind and what might interest you. Second, they try to help you map out how to organize different exhibits. These icons are designed to aid this cognitive process without any physical constraints.

The scrolling content are image driven and divided into different sections so that you can always see more. The design of such website is to let the icons do the work so that the symbol don’t act as a form of “distraction” (Alan Kay).


The Google Arts & Culture project is great in terms of extending and enhancing the influence of museum, but we think it cannot not fully re-mediate or replace museum as the mediate of arts. As we stated earlier, virtual museum, through digital representation, can achieve a lot and even beyond “a lot.” Yet it lacks certain authentic quality – you cannot smell the wooden structure in the room, feel the room with your own body, and see the light bounce off the object. Google Books is a more possible project in the way that most people read book in analog now and maybe it will be the future (though the two of us prefer the tree-killing texture of a physical book) .


Martin Irvine, " André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Imagined Museum) and Interfaces to Art". Overview and Excerpts from Malraux's text.

Presentation (Irvine): "Semiotic Foundations (2): The Museum and Artworks as Interfaces: Metamedia Interfaces from Velázquez to the Google Art Project"

Nancy Proctor, "The Google Art Project." Curator: The Museum Journal, March 2, 2011. http://www.curatorjournal.org/the-google-art-project/.

Martin Irvine, "Working with Semiotic Concepts and Methods: Momentary Concluding Exercises for CCTP-711."