“Google Art Project” Launches: Why It’s Amazing

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One of the longstanding promises of the Internet–of the last century’s worth of technology, really–is that the cultural heritage of the world will be accessible to everyone in their homes. Today, the global museum has taken another step forward with Google Art Project. An ingenious application of Google’s Street View and Picasa tools, it allows web browsers to wander the halls of 17 museums around the world (New York City’s MoMA, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and others).

Some particularly significant artworks in each of the museums (about a thousand total, although more will apparently follow) can be viewed straight-on, in ultra-high resolution. In some cases, that just means a very tight close-up view; others are so detailed that you can make out the grain of individual brushstrokes–a closer view than you’d ever be able to get in person. There’s also explanatory text for the individually viewable works.

Google Art Project isn’t without its startup glitches and gaps; the overall selection is still pretty small (the site represents a deeply Eurocentric idea of “fine art”), it can be frustrating to navigate museum halls with the Street View tool that presents everything through a tilted lens, and it’s particularly annoying to see certain images blurred out (“for reasons pertaining to copyrights,” the FAQ explains). The nannyish chorus announcing that it’s “no substitute for seeing the real thing” is likely to grow irritating very quickly, too. But even in-person visitors to the Tate Britain wouldn’t be able to get the kind of hyperdetailed vision Google Art Project offers of Chris Ofili’s extraordinary No Woman, No Cry, for instance. If you like museums and don’t happen to have your own private jet, prepare to spend a good long while drinking this site in.

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