R^2 Does Google

Google Arts & Culture Case Study

(Link to the longer version – for our reference, but we’re sure you’re all eager to read more)

The Google Art project is an extremely ambitious undertaking. Like Diderot’s vision to collect, organize and present all of the world’s knowledge in one volume or Malraux’s attempt to chronicle all of art history (Irvine Malraux, 2), Google aims to collect, organize, and present all of the world’s art in one location, externalizing cognition and storing and transmitting knowledge. Google Arts & Culture is helping to further Engelbart’s vision of collective intelligence.

Google’s current interface seems like a placeholder interface for longer-term remediation, glimpses of which can be seen in the left-hand navigation, particularly the experiments section. There is reason to believe that as interest in this project increases, Google collects a full catalog of art with which it can experiment, and the project moves out of the beta phase, the interface will improve. Google does, after all, take an iterative approach to problem solving and product development.

The project is currently billed as a space where providers can store and organize digital versions of their catalogs, and users can explore these vast archives. It’s about language advertises the space as an opportunity for the “culturally curious” user to “explore cultural treasures in extraordinary detail and easily share with your friends.” The pitch geared toward partner institutions, meanwhile, focuses on curation and cataloging: “We build free tools and technologies for the cultural sector to showcase and share their gems, making them more widely accessible to a global audience.” Google offers the platform as a collection management system and a storytelling tool.

The feat of partnering with institutions, providing the technology (such as the Google Art Camera), and taking the time needed to capture each work of art should not be underestimated (Proctor). The current state of Google’s interface should be evaluated in the context of this broader, sweeping vision.

The undertaking is unprecedented in the art world and seemingly without precedent elsewhere. The other current projects of this scale that immediately come to mind are other Google projects: the Google Book Project, Google’s Public Data Directory, Google’s Evolution of the Web, Google Moon, or Google Mars, Google Self-Driving Car Project, the whole concept of its search engine. With the exception of Google’s Evolution of the Web project, none of these interfaces are terribly innovative in terms of remediation. The Google Arts & Culture project, in that sense, is the most aesthetically refined, perhaps reflecting the gravity of its content or the desires of  the partners from various museums and cultural sites.

Currently, the primary interface is capable of mediating structural or formal levels of meaning (Irvine Week 13 Slide #76) as the “two-dimensional perceptible surfaces/substrate” that function “as symbol tokens and physical representations” (Irvine Week 13 Slide #64). Yet, how much semiotic intention went into the design process is unclear, and the interface itself is a bit of a black box. Who is choosing the slices and curating the content is not always transparent to the user, and Google provides no navigation instructions, so it is difficult for the user to quickly grasp the full functionality and extent of the platform, for instance.


What’s more, this content is presented in a design that is not innovative and does not dramatically remediate artifacts for the digital space—perhaps intentionally if this is indeed merely a stop on the way to something more. Other museum sites have a similar appearance and allow users to explore artifacts while playing up the encyclopedic affordances of the digital space, such as the MOMA and the Met. The comparison of these cases to an actual encyclopedia’s website, such as Encyclopedia Britannica, is interesting.


Some of Google’s tools are unique to the digital space and helps shift the context and take the user beyond what is possible in a physical museum, such as the zoom function.You can get up close and personal with Monet’s abstract brushstrokes that somehow come together to present a cohesive whole or Klimt’s vibrant golds selectively applied, seeing the hand of the artist at work in a way not possible in person.

monetfull monetzoom

Meanwhile, the 360 degree camera is an attempt to mediate dynamic levels of meaning present in the physical space as well; you can browse and “walk-through” museum spaces at your own pace, with the freedom to zoom at will and avoid social distractions and norms.

Yet, these efforts essentially just use new technological developments to play around the edges of existing standards (Murray, Manovich, Proctor).

Despite the current limitations of the primary interface, Google may be on a more innovative long-term remediation track. Specifically, in the left-hand navigation of the site, there are a number of interesting experiments that can free up more human brain space for meaning-making by offloading significant parts of a cognitive burden onto computing technology:

Still, these experiments seem quite technology- rather than user-centric at the moment. User agency is limited in the sense that Murray describes, potentially because this is just a beta version. Users can explore features, but they are exploring what partner institutions and invisible Google forces have organized and curated. They rely on modern-day versions of Malraux’s “great creator” as guides through the artwork and are not able to easily make their own connections (Irvine Malraux).

If the Google Art Project truly intends to flatten the hierarchy of art and provide unprecedented access to all users, users should have more control over the interface organization and what is done with the art. Of course, technological capabilities play a role as well—what users can do with the platform in part depends on their internet connection and computer hardware. But providing an interface that allows users to manipulate the platform more, and more easily, would also bring it more in line with Alan Kay’s and Douglas Engelbart’s visions of computing systems that can augment human intellect and aid in the learning process while pushing remediation further.

Perhaps this is ultimately what Google has in mind. We’ll have to wait and see.

Works Cited

Irvine, Martin. 2016. “From Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project: Metamedia, and Art Interfaces.”

Irvine, Martin. 2016. “The Museum and Artworks as Interfaces: Metamedia Interfaces from Velázquez to the Google Art Project.” PowerPoint Presentation.

Irvine, Martin. 2016. “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art.”

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Murray, Janet H. 2011. Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10520612.

National Gallery of Art. 2011. “A New Look at Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre.” Pamphlet from the National Gallery of Art.

Proctor, Nancy. 2011. “The Google Art Project.” Curator: The Museum Journal, March 2.