Google Art Project: A Blessing or Curse for Museums?

Zoom in to see the individual brush-strokes of paintings in art galleries all over the world

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Even if you hated the idea of Google Street View, chances are you've used it to scope out unfamiliar urban terrain, scout for extra-terrestrial evidence, or check out some eye-popping mansions. Courtesy of Google's Art Project, you can now similarly gawk at the some of the most notable pieces of fine art in galleries around the world. Is this a good or bad thing for museums and visual art? On the one hand, it could expose more people to the classics. But will the digital version become a substitute for the original?

There are good arguments being made on both sides.

This Is Really a Great Idea, I'll Never Go To a Museum Again

  • Might Just Be More Informative Than the Real Thing, offers The Wall Street Journal's Parminder Bahra. "The level of detail offered up by up to 14 billion pixels is pretty jaw-dropping. Take 'The Ambassadors' by Hans Holbein the Younger at the National Gallery in London. It would be easy to ignore the sheet of music that sits on a table in the painting. But with the Google Art Project’s magnification, users can see that the sheet music actually has real music painted onto it. The user can zoom-in and see the individual notes and words with pin-sharp clarity."
  • Smart Partnership For Museums "We're sure many [museums] must see the idea as competition, since people can view artwork for free," blogs Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at Business Insider. " But of course seeing it in a browser is not at all the same thing as seeing it in real life, so this is just great advertising for them.There are still a few bugs and user experience quirks, but overall it's still a great experience."
  • 'Blow Up a Picasso' with a zoom function that "lets you virtually walk around a gallery and zoom in to each art work, with some magnified so extensively you can see individual brush strokes and cracks in the paint," writes Parmy Olson at Forbes. One caveat: "Participating art galleries include the National Gallery in London, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA and France’s Palace of Versailles, though surprisingly the list doesn’t include the Louvre, meaning we can’t delve into perhaps the most famous painting of them all, The Mona Lisa.

Sure, It's Amazing, But Can't We Just Go To a Real Museum?

  • 'Blair Witch' Style Graininess and Not Many Pieces of Art  The Telegraph's Alastair Sooke isn't super impressed. "Someone else is deciding what images are worthy of study on your behalf – an impulse that surely runs counter to the 'democratic' motivation of the project in the first place. Essentially, Google’s Art Project is a cherry-picking tool, but I would much rather choose the cherries I want to pick myself."
  • Interesting That Google Takes Such an Old World View, notes The Los Angeles Times' Mike Boehm. "Of the 17 museums in the Google Art Project, 13 are in Europe. In America, none of the art on view is housed west of Manhattan or the Potomac River, which means no exposure for museums in Google’s home state of California."
  • It's Got Room for Improvement, blogs Bianca Bosker at The Huffington Post. "For example, not all artworks can be viewed in high-quality detail--Google, and the museums, have decided for you--and as not all rooms in the museums have been mapped, users can sometimes run into dead-ends, unable to move forward into the next gallery....In addition, the Street View navigation tools can be less-than-sleek, and it's easy to overshoot your mark, be directed into a wall, then have to painstakingly back up in a series of clicks."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.