Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Google Art and the power of the real thing

I have been playing with Google Art on and off since it was released a month or so ago, trying to get excited about it. Certainly the technology is amazing and the ability to walk round 385 galleries in 17 world museums and zoom in on the paintings within them impressive. But it comes down the same thing I have commented on before namely, the technology taking over from the art appreciation itself. Check out a similar view in the Boston Globe by art critic Sebastian Smee.

But as Smee points out the reason the 17 museums have allowed Google into their hallowed halls is to encourage more visitors to come and see the real thing. Does one naturally follow the other, i.e. does investing in your on-line presence as a museum pay dividends in increasing your visitor numbers? I used to cite ‘French research’ as proving that it did, which was sloppy as I could never actually source that research.

However I have recently come across a study undertaken by IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) in 2008 on precisely this issue. Interviewing over a thousand people on the statement: “The Internet does not kill libraries and museums”, they came to the conclusion “Internet use is positively related to in-person visits to museums and libraries”- I never realized that my museum visiting was actually an ‘in-person visit’, but now I know!

What they really mean is that adults who use the internet are more likely to visit libraries and museums. Indeed they manage to put a figure on it, namely that in 2006 internet access increased adult visits to museums in the US by 75%. They go further by coming to the conclusion that in-person and on-line visits to museums serve important and complimentary roles in supporting a wide variety of information needs. By looking at information needs addressed by the two types of visits (in-person as distinct from on-line) , the study identified that 94% of the in-person visits are about informal learning and recreation (as against formal education or work-related issues) whereas this drops to 83% when on-line. Another interesting fact that came out of the IMLS study is that the more on-line visits that are made, the more that person is likely to visit a museum.

So now I feel better about Google Art! And to add to that, as a conservator, there is no doubt that its ability to provide such detailed analysis of the paint surface is a useful addition to the conservator’s tool kit, when seeking to understand comparable painting composition and potential deterioration.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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