How things change: the Google Art Project (again)

The updated Google Art Project has been launched with loads more museums contributing over 30,000 artworks.  The interface still seems a bit sketchy to me (sometimes you can open links in a new tab, sometimes you can't; mystery meat navigation; the lovely zoom option isn't immediately discoverable; the thumbnails that appear at the bottom don't have a strong visual connection with the action that triggers their appearance; and the only way I could glean any artist/title information about the thumbnails was by looking at the URL), but it's nice to see options for exploring by collection (collecting institution, I assume), date or artist emphasised in the interface. 

Anyway, it's all about the content – easy access to high-quality zoomable images of some of the world's best artworks in an interface with lots of relevant information and links back to the holding institution is a win for everyone.  And if the attention (and traffic) makes museums a little jealous, well, it'll be fascinating to see how that translates into action.  After all, keeping up with the Joneses seems to be one way museums change…

Reading some online stories about the launch, I was struck by how far conversations about traditional and online galleries have come.  From one:

As users explore the galleries they can also add comments to each painting and share the whole collection with friends and family. Try doing that in the Tate Modern. Actually, don’t.

Although, of course, you can – it's traditionally known as 'having a conversation in a museum'. 
But in 2012, is visiting a website and sharing links online seen as a reasonable stand-in for the physical visit to a museum, leaving the in-person gallery visit for 'purists' and enthusiasts?  (This might make blockbuster exhibtions bearable.)  Or, as the consensus of the past decade has it, does it just whet the appetite and create demand for an experience with the original object, leading to more visits?

8 thoughts on “How things change: the Google Art Project (again)”

  1. Can't it do both? Some people will be drawn to museums by our online content and others will find our online content a suitable replacement for the real thing. I think it largely depends on the interests and personalities of the individual. Either way, we're reaching more people and providing more ways to engage with our collections. That should be considered a win.

  2. I'd hope it could do both! And hopefully each experience enriches the other, even if it's a lot easier to re-visit an object online than in a city you may only be in once.

    Actually, that raises an interesting question – would museums be more likely to highlight the existence of an artwork online if it's in Google Art Project or in their own catalogue? Whichever way around it goes, as a museum-goer it would be lovely if it was easier to find objects in online collections after falling in love with them in gallery.

  3. I really do see these as very different, but complementary experiences. Google Art Project gives you access to a painting that you cannot get in a gallery in terms of the detail. I'm always getting in trouble because I lean in too closely to examine canvases or sculpture. But the gallery gives you the scale and context and experience.

    Nowadays, when I visit a museum I usually check to see if they have a mobile website when I arrive. If there is an app, I usually see something near the entrance, but it would be nice if there was something else in the galleries noting that this piece and more are available at

    This is why I had hoped that QR codes would catch on, because they are a cheap way to alert visitors using a symbol that they can find more info in an online place. But maybe there are other ways to do this with different signage.

  4. I see an online presence as being a 2 way benefit for museums and visitors. Firstly (as already mentioned) it can be used to attract new or indeed repeat visits (how do we get people to our collections?) This can be done by showcasing items and can add extra detail or even putting it into a 'story telling' model to enhance what could be a simple 'flat’ image. One service we are exploring at the moment is called 'Gem Genie' ( which is an online showcasing tool which can be self managed by the museum to create a digitalised version of whole collections or specific exhibitions etc. We feel something like this tool enables us to create a space in which exploration and a journey can occur and can provide deeper engagement.

    The second element of an online presence is one of 'how do we get our collections to others?' This is where social media elements and sharing is important as it allows initial visitors and enthusiasts to share their discoveries and experiences with their networks ensuring additional exposure to the museum or collection. He cycle continues from here.

    Therefore we see the online space as being a key driver in ensuring the physical space continues. A better web offer = more visitors who then share their experiences to their wider networks. And the two can interlink in terms of better usage of apps, QR codes, Augmented Reality so that the physical space is supplemented by info and data from the virtual space.

  5. My primary concern with the Google Art Project is one of identity. Even though you can search via institution etc, will the viewer simply be looking at various art without knowing where it physically sits / belongs to? Although a wider argument may be 'does this matter?' – to the institute itself, fighting for funding and to sustain jobs etc, the answer is yes it does matter. Maybe a better way is for individual museums / galleries etc to properly embrace new technology and enhance their individual branding to ensure their distinct identity is upheld.

  6. Interesting comment, Mike, about identity. Maybe it's my science background but I see the strength of aggregator projects (like the Art Project or, say, the Encyclopedia of Life in the biology world) as being their ability to *blur* institutional boundaries rather than reinforce them. If I'm a visitor to one of these sites and am interested in Rembrandt (or koalas!) then my experience is enriched by seeing many Rembrandt works from many institutions. Now, I'm happy to accept that I don't know how well the Art Project lets you do that, as choice of what works to include was left to the participants – so in reality it's likely to be patchy. But I think my point is that letting go of institutional context can be a good thing.

  7. Fair points Ely. I think from a individual perspective then you are correct, the more you can engage with within a specific artist/area te better. My point was more aimed at the institution as in as much as their need to be 'selfish' and maintaining their distinct identity to ensure their survival. I feel this is especially prevelant in the current era of cost cutting within the arts. Maybe an answer is to have an aggregated source of art but to clearly signpost viewers to the places these treasures live to ensure both a deeper enrichment as well as ongoing survival for the institutions. My fear is that without the exposure, visitor numbers and ongoing support, we will see treasures being snapped up by rich collectors or 'physically lost' living only in an online bubble.

  8. Hi there,

    I'd like to see google art but I can't open Collections or Artists, etc at all. What do you think is missing on my laptop?

    Many thanks


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