[This is a guest post by Lee Sorensen, the Visual Studies and Dance librarian for Duke. He selects for the arts and manages the public-interfaces for image collections. He currently edits the Image Portal for Duke, http://guides.library.duke.edu/images, as well as the Dictionary of Art Historians, www.dictionaryofarthistorians.org]
One afternoon in early February Google quietly launched its next adventure, the Google Art Project. Based upon a ‘comprehensive information’ approach to art–and an odd assumption that users think of looking for art where it is located today—the internet giant launched a self-guided site of the major art museums of the world. Within 24 hours there was a Wikipedia entry on it, the ultimate vetting for any initiative.
The Google Art Project is half Google Earth, half YouTube. The browser company approached the biggest public art museums, allowing each institution to choose which or how many galleries and paintings to include. Because of rights issues, all works selected are in the public domain, a fact that will disappoint those hoping to see Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at the MoMA site. Users move from gallery to gallery with the familiar Google directional arrows and, if a painting highlights itself, you can go in close—very close. Curatorial departments have, since the age of digital photography, made highly detailed photos of their art to examine such things as deterioration or document damage. There was, up to now, little public value in making such images available until Google created and mounted them.
That’s the curious thing about the Google Art Project. While it’s fascinating to look closer at a picture than any guard would ever let you, the practical value of this is limited. Modern art history departments no longer teach a “masterworks” approach to art history; art objects act as documentation of a time or intent. So a 5 cm view of a painting isn’t really driven by scholarship. Like most technological developments, that’s not really the point. You develop a product and then see what people do with it. If the Google Art Project is a parlor toy today, it won’t necessarily be one tomorrow.
As a humanities resource collector, the most exciting thing is to watch how this Google pro-bono product will affect the commercial world. Electronic image collections have been hugely expensive for libraries to acquire despite many of the images being drawn from public domain. Will vendors now focus on delivering the images Google never can, will they lower their costs—or be driven out of business?
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