A Virtual Mega-Museum: Google Art Project Launches With Masterpieces from the Tate, MoMA, and Beyond

A Virtual Mega-Museum: Google Art Project Launches With Masterpieces from the Tate, MoMA, and Beyond

Google has exhibited an abiding interest in art. In 2009, in the wake of widespread looting at Iraq's National Museum, the multinational corporation put images of thousands of ancient artifacts from the endangered cultural institution online. Then, Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced this past November that he would be teaming up with gallerist Larry Gagosian, as advisor, and Russian art darling Dasha Zhukova to produce Art.sy, an online Pandora-like art aggregation site. (And we must not forget how Google charmingly honors the birthdays of famed artists with illustrations on its homepage.) Now, the technology company has applied its 360-degree "street view" technology to launch the Google Art Project, a Web site that allows art-loving web surfers to virtually stroll through 17 major art museums in nine countries, zooming in on individual works of art to marvel at remarkably detailed digital reproductions.

Announced this morning, the Art Project provides access to digital replicas of gallery spaces within such top international institutions as the Metropolitan, MoMA, the Frick Collection, Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie, Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, the Uffizi in Florence, the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Madrid's Museo Reina Sofia, London's Tate Britain, and others — their collections all amassed through a single interface — and all this without the burden of an entrance fee.

Available for anyone's perusal are 385 gallery rooms, in which hang more than 1,000 high-resolution reproductions of artworks by 486 different artists. Of the thousand pieces included in the online archive, 17 (one from each participating museum) are available in super-high resolution, rendered with the "gigapixel" digitizing process, which stitches together multiple high-resolution photographs for a 7-billion-pixel product — a thousand times more detailed than the output of an average digital camera.

On the Web site, one can peer so deeply into Aleksandr Andreyevich Ivanov's "The Apparition of Christ to the People" from Moscow's State Tretyakov Gallery, that a group of tiny people, hiding behind a tree, spring into view. Gazing at the finest details of Chris Ofili's elephant dung-clad "No Woman No Cry," in the collection of the Tate Britain, scat is not all that can be admired close up — miniscule images of teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered in 1993, can even be espied in the teardrops of the painting's subject, according to the Independent.

Among the remaining 983 high-resolution (but not "gigapixel" artworks) are such landmark paintings as van Gogh's "The Starry Night" (from MoMA) and Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" (from the Uffizi), the most slender hair-marks of their brushstrokes, the most subtle white glimmers of their highlights reproduced for meticulous study alongside written commentary and links to external videos. While major museums like Paris's Louvre and Musée d'Orsay have not signed up with Google yet, head of the Art Project Amit Sood expressed on Google's blog that he has high hopes that more museums and artworks will be added to the site over time.

Of course, as Sood told the Washington Post, "nothing beats the first person experience" — the joy of sprinting through marble museum halls in the spirit of "Bande à part" or meandering through galleries while playing hooky à la "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off." But while the Google Art Project doesn't replace the fun of actually going to the museum — much like the VIP art fair didn't, ultimately, replace its physical, art market event predecessors — it certainly provides an exciting, as well as a democratizing, resource.