Google Arts and Culture and the Siren’s Call of Commercial Interest.

24 Jan


The Google Arts and Culture¹ (GAC) application is the public face of the Google Cultural Institute, a not-for-profit initiative of the Alphabet corporation. While the Institute was born from the Google Art Project, which focused on the high-quality digitization of works of art, its real focus is on how Google’s technological resources can enhance production in the arts and humanities and use those products to enhance Google’s own online offerings. Although the vast majority of materials on the site are scans of paintings and photographs, the Institute has innovated with new technologies such as the ultra-low-budget VR headset, Google Cardboard. While it is heartening to see such a large corporation take an active interest in the digital humanities, there is some question of what exactly GAC adds to the field and whether its duplication of effort with organizations such as The Internet Archive will be good for the field moving forward.

Google Cardboard is a cardboard structure that turns many mobile devices into a rudimentary VR headset. 

A result of the “20% time” that Google allows its employees to experiment with new technology and applications, The Google Art Project began in 2011 as an effort to create very high quality digital scans of famous works of art. While it launched with just 42 exhibits in 2012, by June 2013 it included 6 million items from dozens of global partners, including art, history and natural history museums. While the Institute itself has digitized hundreds of paintings, even creating the new gigapixel Art Camera specifically for the purpose that has increased the efficiency of the process by an order of magnitude², it is the contributions of these partners that makes up the bulk of the GAC collection³.


GAC’s primary contribution to this collection of is its organization and accessibility. Both the desktop site and the mobile app are clearly laid out and visually pleasing, if a bit cold. A set of self-explanatory filters fills the sidebar, while a search field is available in the menu bar. These tools serve to locate specific works or narrow browsing by artist, medium, movement, event, historical figure or location. All of the pictures are presented in stunningly high resolution and faithful color, a welcome change from the less rigorous standards of Google Books. Objects are also presented with a complete and useful set of metadata, provided by partners, but cataloged and contextualized by GACs algorithms. However, after creating the vital infrastructure, GAC leaves the job of real content creation in the form of projects and exhibits to the partnering museums. While these exhibits provide necessary context for the included works, the “exhibit” title masks the fact that there is little difference between these works and any other well-executed multi-media presentation. Although there is certainly value in making these works broadly accessible, the real scholarly value of the GAC project comes from the Institute’s experiments.


The massive wall at The Lab, in conjunction with the Art Camera, allows a new look at old works of art. 

The Institute’s experiments have already produced some tangible products: Google Cardboard facilitates VR experience of galleries captured by the Google Maps team’s 360 camera, the aforementioned  Art Camera is a revolution in digital imaging and The Wall, a massive screen installation at the Institute that allows viewing the Art Project’s scans at an unprecedented level of magnification and resolution. It is reassuring that the Institute has already been able to turn some of its high concepts into reality. The current experiments listed on the site are exploring the potential of machine learning applied to art identification, mapping networks of objects, and stretching the limits of data visualization and represent a real commitment to pushing the capabilities of technology to add real value to the field of digital humanities. The focus on artificial intelligence and big data mapping indicates that the Institute does have a clear idea of next steps for the field.


For all of GAC’s promise and potential, it does raise some concerns. First, it does not and does not seem to be intended to reach the broadest audience. While the site is accessible, it is not well advertised and requires the user to drive their own exploration, expecting a certain amount of familiarity with Western art culture and education in order to take advantage of its features. Also, like many massive digital collections, its content is heavily skewed towards western, and particularly English-speaking culture. While access is limited by available technology, GAC’s commitment to working smoothly on mobile technology represents an acknowledgement that digital access is an issue they are aware of and are seeking to improve. In practice, the customers that the Institute are designing the site and their technology for is not the end user, but the partnering cultural institutions and academics, which in turn are primarily responsible for the end user experience. Viewed in this context, as opposed to being seen as something primarily created to give access to remote works of art. the structure of GAC makes more sense.

The second concern with GAC should worry these institutions, however. While the Institute is a non-profit endeavor, its parent company, Alphabet, is not. While Alphabet has, up to this point, made a sincere effort to “Be Good,” there is nothing that promises it will continue to do so in the future, especially as it founders reach retirement. This leaves one wondering if the plug could be completely and suddenly pulled on the entire institution, leaving the work completed up to this point inaccessible. Considering how much of the GAC project overlaps with the efforts of The Internet Archive (IA), an institution devoted exclusively to digital preservation and open access, the high quality of the digital infrastructure in GAC is frankly troubling. Beyond its reassuring ideological commitments, the IA simply does not and likely will never have the resources to create the kind of infrastructure and assistance that GAC is able to offer partner institutions. It seems very likely that this will result in an increasing number of institutions throwing their lot in with GAC ass opposed to the IA, leaving access to these works in the hands of an institution whose character could be unpredictable in the future.


  2. Kastrenakes, Jacob. “Google Made an Insanely High-Res Camera to Preserve Great Works of Art.” The Verge. The Verge, May 17, 2016.
  3. W.B. Seales, S. Crossan, M. Yoshitake and S. Girgin, “From assets to stories via the Google Cultural Institute Platform,” 2013 IEEE International Conference on Big Data, Silicon Valley, CA, 2013, pp. 71-76.

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