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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 02/ 1/2011

Google Art Project: 'Street view' technology added to museums

By Philip Kennicott

Sandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," left, and Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night" are included in the project. (Corbis, The Museum of Modern Art)

Google is bringing its "street view" technology indoors. With the launch of the Google Art Project, announced at a press conference in London this morning, Google jumps into the online art arena with tools that will allow web surfers to move through 17 of the most prominent art galleries in the world, with the option to look more closely at individual art works, including some that will be digitized so exhaustively that individual paint strokes and hairline cracks in the surface will be visible.

(VIDEO: Google Art Project preview)

Included among the institutions that have teamed up with Google are some of the most prestigious museums in the world. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Frick Collection are participating, as is the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington. Museums in London, Madrid, Moscow, Amsterdam and Florence, among others, are also contributing.

(Google Art Project: Explore Washington's Freer Gallery of Art)

The Freer has allowed a popular work by James McNeill Whistler, "The Princess from the Land of Porcelain," to be digitized through the "gigapixel" process, which stitches together multiple high-resolution images. A sample of one of Google's gigapixel images, provided by the Freer, suggests that users of Google Art will be able to see the faintest tracery of white paint with which the artist has made his subject's eyes glisten, as well as the nubbly, grid-like texture of the canvass underneath.

"On average there are 7 billion pixels" per image, said Amit Sood, leader of the Google Art Project. "This is a thousand times more than the average digital camera."

"The giga-pixel experience brings us very close to the essence of the artist through detail that simply can't be seen in the gallery itself," said Julian Raby, director of the Freer, in a statement. "Far from eliminating the necessity of seeing artworks in person, Art Project deepens our desire to go in search of the real thing."

Many important art museums have already produced extensive databases of their collections, and provide access to some of their collections online. The Google Project differs in its combination of a "walk through" function, letting visitors see how paintings are hung and organized as they move virtually through the collection, with the ability in some cases to see high resolution images of specific works. It also brings prominent galleries from around the world together through a single interface, with Google's extraordinary online reach.

Sood says the Google interface will also be easier to manage and navigate, allowing users to move relatively quickly from the full picture to detail.

"Even though a lot of these images are available on museum websites, you can not really zoom into them with the ease of this website," said Sood, from London.

Other institutions participating in the project include Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Among the iconic images that will be available through the gigapixel process are Vincent Van Gogh's "The Starry Night" (from MOMA), Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" (from the Uffizi) and Rembrandt's "Night Watch" (from the Rijksmuseum).

(Google Art Project: Explore Rembrandt's 'Night Watch')

Absent from the list of participants are two of the most popular and important museums in the world, the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay, both in Paris.

"We approached as many museums as we could," said Sood. "But you can only wait so long for people to come on board. We just decided to stop at 17."

But if the project is successful, there will be more. Currently, visitors can access 385 gallery rooms, including more than a 1000 high-resolution images of work by 486 different artists.

The project will almost inevitably raise simmering concerns about Google's extraordinary power and influence in the world of online culture. Google Books has proven an extraordinary boon to scholars, both amateur and professional, but also raised concerns that even while the books available online are in the public domain, Google may develop a monopoly on access to them. While art museums may be happy to participate in the project, not all of them will want to surrender access to high-resolution images of their collections, which they use to make t-shirts, posters and other merchandise.

Previews of the new Google feature also suggest that the company is still thinking in basic terms about how to make cultural information available on the web: digitize and upload. Asked if his team had worked with experts who study the psychology and physiology of how people actually look at art, Sood said that had been left to experts at the respective museums.

Which means that experiencing art through Google Art will have its frustrations. One of the images that will be made available through the new portal is Han Holbein's 1533 "The Ambassadors," held by the National Gallery in London. The painting includes an image of a skull, painted in anamorphic perspective which makes it highly distorted when seen face on, but legible when seen from a sharp side angle. Will the effect translate into online viewing?

"It's tough," says Sood. "We tried, we wanted to get that effect." He says it appears to better effect in the gigapixel version, but not so well in the walk through function.

"Nothing beats the first person experience," says Sood.

Google Art Project preview:

Visitor guide:

Behind the scenes:

More on this story:

Google Art Project: Explore the galleries

Latest news on Google at Post Tech

Going Out Guide: Washington area museums

By Philip Kennicott  | February 1, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Galleries, Museums, News Features, Philip Kennicott, Smithsonian  
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A wonderful idea.

Posted by: 1911a1 | February 1, 2011 6:53 AM | Report abuse

Arlington National Cemetery needs Google Street View.

Posted by: blasmaic | February 1, 2011 7:30 AM | Report abuse

An employee at the Getty owned Pierre Hotel in New York City wondered why there were so many Germans being hired and staying at The Pierre during World War II. He called the FBI and the FBI charged J.P. Getty with Espionage, FBI File 100.1202, June 26, 1940. 43,000 people were killed in the UK while J. Paul Getty was in Berlin still shipping oil to Hitler five months before Pearl Harbor; December 7, 1941. The mother of J.P. Getty was German. 2003 documents declassified by UK Warfare Ministry reveal that in Oct. 1941 the pro-Nazi Jean Paul Getty employed and lodged Nazis at his Pierre Hotel in New York City; Nazis who were involved in spying on and sabotaging Allied Forces’ war production plants. As aristocrats with treasures of art were executed -- beginning in 1933 -- with the outbreak of war; Getty assiduously added to his vast collection with the Nazis. The Rembrandt of Marten Looten hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Gainsborough of Christie purchased in 1938 is at The Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Posted by: MacDonald1 | February 1, 2011 9:01 AM | Report abuse

This is a good idea. Wouldn't it be great if Google could somehow capture the energy emanating from the local bannering initiatives in various jury rigged districts around town such as "Places from Which You Can See the Douglas Development Sign District" and the "Missed City Carts District". It might help justify the outrageous($1500.00 per)cost of the banners and get us some international cred.

Cupcake, Doughnut, get on it! I'm sure for just a few hundred thousand more youe can transfer those banners into digital files!

Posted by: SoCali | February 1, 2011 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Google will do more for the mass enjoyment of art this year than the entirety of all NEA efforts.

At a fraction, a tiny fraction of the cost of the NEA.

Posted by: docwhocuts | February 1, 2011 11:13 AM | Report abuse

"At a fraction, a tiny fraction of the cost of the NEA."

Sooo ... what is the NEA budget?

Posted by: knjincvc | February 1, 2011 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Oh great, another reason to not get my work done!

Posted by: familynet | February 1, 2011 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Pretty neat though it has a long way to go in terms of coverage per museum. Kind of sad that the NY museums force them to blur out some artwork. Guess they really want you to come up pay to see them.

Posted by: FusilliJerry1 | February 1, 2011 3:21 PM | Report abuse

FusilliJerry1 posts February 1, 2011 3:21 PM
"Pretty neat though it has a long way to go in terms of coverage per museum. Kind of sad that the NY museums force them to blur out some artwork. Guess they really want you to come up pay to see them."

Use your head will ya!
Blurring some art work will prevent someone from copying the image and finding a way to resell it.

Posted by: knjincvc | February 1, 2011 3:27 PM | Report abuse

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