The Google Art Project Makes Masterpieces Accessible to All

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200px-Venus_von_Willendorf_01.jpgGone are the days of jet-setting to galleries in Manhattan, Florence, London, or Madrid. As of yesterday, all you need to become a museum maven is an Internet connection. Google Art Project, the brainchild of a small group of art-happy Google employees, brings the Street View technology of Google Earth and Google Maps inside 17 museums around the world. The roster includes The Uffizi, the Tate Britain, The Met, MoMA, and the Van Gogh Museum.

The Google Art Project collection, as a whole, consists of 1,000 works of art by more than 400 artists, and this is only the beginning. Google hopes to add more museums and works of art to its virtual dossier soon.

As I explored the project I couldn't help but recall my first college art history class, "A Survey of Art History." In the class, which was, by the way, far from a survey, and more of a sketch, we covered centuries of art in just over three months. Do I remember specifics about any single work of art? Of course not (with the exception of the fertility statue, Venus of Willendorf, for obvious reasons). Venus of Willendorf aside, the only other memory I carried with me at semester's end was my professor's tagline about every famous work of art: "You couldn't possibly understand until you see it firsthand." I remember thinking to myself, "If I couldn't possibly understand artwork in Williamsburg, Virginia, then why am I here?"

Thank you, Google Art Project, for saving us all from pretentious museum buffs worldwide. Just because I have not yet had the privilege of visiting all of the best art-holding institutions, does not mean that I am any less of an enthusiast than those that are older and better traveled. Providing access to artwork is exactly what the project aims to do. In a company blog post yesterday, Amit Sood, Google Art Project's lead,stresses that his team wants to "help museums make their art more accessible -- not just to regular museum-goers or those fortunate to have great galleries on their doorsteps, but a whole new set of people who might otherwise never get to see the real thing up close."

Now, I can stroll through the aisles of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and study the renowned use of light and shadow in Rembrandt's Night Watch on my lunch break. The team behind Street View, and their brand-new device, the "trolley," enable these 360-degree virtual tours of museum interiors, and each museum features one work of art in super high-resolution by using gigapixel photocapturing technology.

I must admit that even with the super high-resolution and zooming capabilities in the Google Art Project's version of Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles, it did not evoke the same emotions I felt as a student in Amsterdam standing in front of the painting for the first time. However, zooming in on my computer in the privacy of my own home definitely beat the museum security guard dragging me away from the painting for grazing the canvas with the tip of my nose. (At the time it seemed the only way to really see Van Gogh's brushstrokes.)

So, perhaps my college professor was right, maybe we cannot truly comprehend the magnitude and grandeur of a work of art until we face it in person. But until I book my next trip to Europe, the Google Art Project remains a better alternative to Wikipedia and Flickr images, dusty library books, and slideshow projections of the world's masterpieces.

See for yourself.

Image: Venus of Willendorf, Wikimedia Commons. Thumbnail: Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles, Wikimedia Commons.

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Eliza Murphy is a fellow at AtlanticLIVE. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and lives in Washington, D.C.

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