Museums are a traditionally physical structure that foster the education and examination of art history. They function as cultural institutions and “an organizing system for a society’s (usually nationalistic) ‘cultural encyclopedia’ of prototype works” (Irvine, 4).
For this week’s post, we decided to focus on the virtual tour feature of the Google Art Project. This feature involves exploring and interpreting a museum, as well as the cultural artifacts inside it, in different ways than you normally would in a physical museum. The technology allows users to use a 360-degree video experience to choose from what perspective you view a museum and its contents.
The ability to fluidly move between rooms, focus on a particular piece of art and choose from what angle and to what extent you examine this art, effectively shifts how we organize shared knowledge and how we archive memory, specifically online. In this way, the Google Arts and Culture Project is an interface to not only art history, but to the virtual museum experience in which we examine that history.
Museums are mediated by the virtual tour function of Google Arts and Culture Project. In addition, the Google Arts and Culture Project has done its best to replicate what it means to “tour” a museum. By this we mean that the simulated museum experience does resemble the actual physical tour experience in some ways (although there are important differences). Similarities include a 360-degree view of each rooms. Viewers aren’t limited to a 2D static image. They can move (by way of a mouse) to look in each room from different perspectives.
From here, we’ll unpack the different conceptual layers of the virtual museum experience. The first is choosing a museum.
- Choose a Museum: We chose the J. Paul Getty Museum, located in Los Angeles, CA. As students in Washington, DC, our ability to tour this west coast based museum took a matter of seconds, which indicates how time becomes less of a constraint when virtually touring a space.
Below is an aerial image of the Getty museum. Not only can users choose which museum to tour, but they can begin that tour in any part of the museum. This choice allows them to self-navigate, creating tours that other museum goers might never have experienced before, which highlights the simultaneously individual yet collective experience of a virtual tour.
This view refocuses viewers back to the importance of the physical museum. Proctor notes, “… both the gigapixel image and the Street View underscore and enhance the importance and centrality of the original object and its context in the museum” (Proctor, 221). Google does not let viewers forget the context in which they are viewing a piece of art. And yet, “Curators make deliberate and educated choices about the placement of art in the museum. The stories and relationships revealed by the way objects are hung in the galleries offer as much insight into the works as any catalogue or other document authored by an expert” (Proctor, 219). Is it significant that museum goers can connect stories and relationships not necessarily intended by the curators?
What are the implications of encoding meaning and transmitting representations of artifacts in this virtual museum through time and space? As Dr. Irvine explains, “… the museum functions by also transmitting the museum idea, an image of an abstract ‘cultural encyclopedia’ made visible” (Irvine, 4). The way that the replicated images are organized on the Google Arts and Culture platform impacts how we encode the images as “an idealized, interpretive narrative sequence assumed to exemplify a common musée imaginaire…” (Irvine, 5).
- Exploring the Getty Museum. The museum is represented in static images, which are a construction of pixels mapped onto our screen. We create movement among these images by navigating with our mouse. Through the extension of human cognition via a computer system, we can move through the museum, recognizing patterns among exhibits, as well as within individual pieces of art. We use media, signal and symbol representations to identify the significance of these patterns. In the context of a computer system, we act through an interface, which has specific design features and software layers that map pixels onto our screen in a particular way.
In other words, the virtual museum itself is a representation, or replication, of the actual, physical Getty Museum. So, the online representation of the Getty Museum is an instance, or token, which contains cultural artifacts (other tokens). Through the computer screen interface, we explore the Getty Museum in the context of the Google Arts and Culture web project. Nancy Proctor in “The Google Art Project” cites Eric Johnson, webmaster at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, who describes this viewing experience as “a shift from ‘‘content’’ to ‘‘context”” (Proctor, 215).
As Dr. Irvine explains, “a contemporary computational system (large or small) is a design for implementing pre-existing human symbolic-cognitive processes to enable ongoing interpretations through the interactive metamedia design for all our digital encodable symbolic artefacts” (Irvine, 3). In the context of the Google Arts and Culture platform, this means that when museums (previously established sites that “convert the material and social history of cultural objects into a generalized “art history”” (Irvine, 4)) are remediated online, they allow users to interact with “an evolving collection of symbol structures” as they move through time by way of simulation and 360-degree technology (Simon, 22). These interpretations are situated in time and the represent our current environment. They are moving pictures of meaning making.
- Looking at a specific artefact. Once you are inside the museum, you have the ability to place yourself in a variety of rooms that actually exist within the physical museum. Because the process of digitizing the various pieces of art can be both time-consuming and highly expensive (Proctor, 216), each virtual tour option differs depending on the amount of art that it is able to provide online. In our example, the Getty museum has a variety of rooms available to browse on both the first and second floors, however, not every room is accessible. Upon “entering” a room, the user has the option to take a closer look at the different pieces of art by clicking one of the images at the bottom.
We chose to take a closer look at a painting titled, “A Hare in the Forest.” Upon clicking on the image, the camera directs users to the place where the artefact is located. This gives someone the ability to see what other artefacts are located nearby while giving them a sense of place and space – even without being there physically, users can get a sense of their surroundings. While users can zoom in and see the art from the room perspective, they can also gain more information on the piece of art by clicking on the box with the artwork’s name on it.
Upon clicking on the named box, users are taken out of the room and into a space that introduces them to the piece of art. In our example, we are looking at a painting that was created in the 1500s.
It is at this point that users are able to experience more online than they would be able to experience in the museum; if someone clicks on the magnifying glass, they then have access to the painting from a much closer perspective – a proximity that would never be achieved if viewed in the actual museum. This feature backs up the statement that was made in “The Google Art Project” reading – this high-resolution image exemplifies how the Web can be used to complement an encounter with gallery artwork, instead of attempt to imitate the artwork (Proctor, 215).
The ability to zoom into the picture gives the user an experience that he or she would not have in a museum. Zooming out, the user also has the ability to read more about the painting’s history and context.
- Scrolling down the rabbit hole. Moving farther down the page, the user is confronted with the option to “discover more.” This feature is based on what the user is currently looking at; Google sees that they’re looking at a painting located in the Getty Museum, with the main subject being a rabbit, and the artist being Hans Hoffmann. Thus, the recommended content relates to what the user is currently looking at – the Getty Museum, Hans Hoffmann, and mammals. And if they were to click on either of the three options, they would then be directed toward more options that would allow them to discover more about the particular subject. For example, if we were to click on “mammals…”
… we would be taken to a page that introduces us to what a mammal is….
… and if we scrolled farther down this page, we would find a directory of paintings and artwork that contain depictions of mammals.
If you click on one of the images, it will then direct you to the page that allows you to zoom in on the image, while also giving you information about its history and at which museum it’s currently housed at. Echoing the title of this blog, the virtual tour feature of Google Arts & Culture can be related to the metaphor of going down a rabbit’s hole – just when you think you’ve found something interesting, you are encouraged to click on yet another new link with new opportunities for adventure. Just by clicking on the recommended “mammals” page, we went from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to a painting with horses at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. From there, we clicked on a chandelier image which recommended we take a look at glass artefacts, and from there we chose a recommended vase that is currently housed at the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb, Croatia. Google Arts & Culture allows users to learn and travel thousands of miles, visiting some of the world’s most treasured cultural centers, in the span of just a few minutes.
- A virtual experience that differs from the physical experience. The Google Arts Project allows users to navigate around a museum from the comfort and ease of their computer. Because of the virtual tours, not only can users see an image of an iconic piece of art, but they can see the room that the piece of art is housed in – the wall that it sits on or near, the pieces of art that compliment it nearby, and even the floor and ceiling of the room surrounding it. While all of these features enhance the experience, there are also elements that are lost in the process. For example, what does the room sound like? What does it smell like? Is the room hot or cold? How does lighting affect the painting at different hours of the day? While none of these elements enhance the art per se, they do make an impact on the user experience.
Another downfall of Google Arts & Culture is the fact that, as we mentioned above, not all rooms, or pieces of art, in any given museum or establishment, can be transferred as images online. As Proctor writes, “Beyond the costs of the gigapixel capture process, negotiating the rights to represent art online can be exceptionally difficult and costly” (216). It is noted in this reading that Jane Burton, the creative director of Tate Media, believes that Google Art risks “giving a very skewed image of creative output through time and around the world” (Proctor, 216). She gives the example that 20th century modernism could be absent because of high reproduction fees. This obviously serves as an obstacle for Google Arts & Culture, but it also proves the point that while this virtual tour option enhances society and its understanding of arts and culture, it will most likely not obsolesce the museum. Nancy Proctor reiterates this statement by writing, “I would argue that both the gigapixel image and the Street View underscore and enhance the importance and centrality of the original object and its context in the museum” (Proctor, 221).
6. Closing thoughts. Google Art & Culture has the potential to enhance the viewer’s interest in a particular piece of art or gallery, and this interest could lead to a future, in-person visit to the gallery. This could benefit the individual museum as well as the overall economy. However, we found that just because a user can take a virtual tour of these cultural meccas, it does not mean that this virtual experience replaces the act of physically visiting a museum; there are many elements of the user experience that are still missing. The fact that Google Arts & Culture is free to use serves as an enhancement to society; it is a free teaching tool for users of any age, and it has the potential to promote a culture of users who will become more educated on the topics of art and culture.
National Gallery of Art, background on Samuel Morse’s painting, The Gallery of the Louvre.
Nancy Proctor, “The Google Art Project.” Curator: The Museum Journal, March 2, 2011.
Presentation (Irvine): “The Museum and Artworks as Interfaces: Metamedia Interfaces from Velázquez to the Google Art Project.”
Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996. Excerpt (11 pp.).