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?