Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Museums and the Web – in praise of Google Art

I was rather dismissive of Google Art when I blogged about it a few weeks ago, principally due to the fact that I could not see what it was offering beyond promotion of Google that what was not already available on line.

Our final session at Museums and the Web 2011 involved a Q&A session with representatives of institutions who are part of it plus a member of the Google Art team. And I must say that their comments, along with a further play I have had with the web site, has turned me into a bit of a fan.

First up, a bit of background. Google Art is a project developed in house by Google staff in their 20% time (the day a week all Google staff are given to pursue their own ideas). It involved 17 art museums in Europe and the USA allowing Google’s ‘street-view’ technology to document their principal galleries along with each museum providing Google with 35 high res images of key artworks. In addition each museum had to choose one artwork for Google to photograph at super high res (gigabyte level). The project cost the museums nothing beyond their own staff time.

In good Google fashion each museum was locked into a very tight non-disclosure agreement so that for the two years the project took to develop, each one had no idea which other museums were involved. It’s clear that some museums had reservations about this and pulled out and are now regretting doing so.
And the reaction now that it is up? High praise from the museums that were represented on the panel, complementing Google on how good they were to work with, pleased with the results, and all of them citing massive increase in web activity on each of their sites, and significantly increased visitor numbers (which is why they did it in the first place). Concerns over copyright were allayed by artworks being blurred out in gallery views (particularly noticeable in the National Gallery, London’s site), and the potential loss in revenue by giving away high res images, which they normally sell, compensated by the higher visitor numbers. The representative from the Tate made the interesting observation that many of their curators who have tended to dismiss the internet were now excited about it and finally understanding its power in their sphere.

And the downside? I had sensed during the conference that amongst the museum web site fraternity there was some unhappiness. This manifested itself during the Q&A session in questions about Google’s lack of openness. Why could not the statistics on Google Art visitors be made public, why could not the ‘street-view’ sequences and technology be made available for the museums to use as tours themselves or for recording temporary exhibitions, and why did they not undertake the whole exercise as an open collaborative exercise with the museum sector?

The Google Art rep’s answer to each was politely circumscribed but was clearly that this is ultimately about driving traffic to the Google site as cost effectively as possible.

For my money, the end justifies the means. The project has created a significant new asset for the museum sector.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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