The Google Art Project is a wonderful thing. Launched in 2011, the online database allows users to peruse high resolution images of artworks from the collections of over 150 institutions, including the Tate Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Uffizi, and even the White House in Washington D.C. The artworks come fully annotated with notes on the pieces themselves and occasionally from their curators, and there are even purpose-made online exhibitions and collections to browse. The project provides people with ability to engage in a deep and meaningful level with artworks across the globe that they cannot and may never have the chance to actually visit. It is an amazing opportunity for positive online engagement and I applaud the institutions involved.
One element of the project does not sit well with me however, in its current manifestation at least, and that is “Museum View,” a feature that allows you to navigate a gallery using the same software as Google Maps’ “Street View.” My attention was brought to the feature by an Internet article documenting instances of the 360° camera accidentally taking photos of itself (or “selfies,” if you must) in gallery mirrors. The article was supposed to poke a bit of light-hearted fun at the project, but for me, strangely, these were actually more engaging than anything else visible on “Museum View” as they were the only images that gave you any connection to the experience and made you feel like you were actually there. I feel the rest of the Google Art Project works because a museum should feel safe knowing that it can give content away for free online, because nothing can replace the experience of actually visiting. “Museum View” feels like it’s trying to give away the experience as well, and unsuccessfully at that.
The problem that screamed out at me was, how does this “Street View” for museums actually change the view of museums on the street? It’s sad, but many people choose not to, nor even consider visiting museums and galleries as they feel like the content is “not for them,” or that they won’t understand what they are looking at. “Museum View” does nothing to alter this perception. There is no available interpretation for anything you can see, so no learning or understanding can be taken away from it. All you can do is say that you have seen the artwork, somewhat, in its real life setting.
In a sense, the feature reduces museums back to the old fashioned Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities designed not to educate or be enjoyed, but to overwhelm. A statement of social status and cultural superiority where there are no labels, just a collection to be viewed as a single entity where nothing is to be learned other than the affluence of its owner. Indeed, a gallery with no supporting information will feel like this, and “Museum View” certainly does. As I attempted to navigate the prescribed paths through the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, I felt like I may as well be browsing the image gallery for some well furnished stately home for sale on the Savills website. For me, “Museum View” not only does nothing to alter, but actually cements the street view that galleries are not inclusive environments for people of any economic or educational background.
My issue is not with the idea itself however, merely its current form. A museum experience can never be given away for free online, nothing can compare to a physical visit, and “Museum View” certainly can’t. “Museum View” has no atmosphere, it is achingly silent and lifeless and the prescribed pathways that it offers you through an institution deny you the joy of personal exploration and discovery that I discussed in a post last month. However there is certainly something to be said for being able to see certain objects in their physical setting, as they are often complimented by the exhibits or architecture around them. I simply feel the feature needs more features, the most important of all being interpretation. People need to be able to understand as well as admire what they are looking at. If people feel like an art gallery is full of people and objects that are above them, “Museum View” will certainly do nothing to change that perception.
“Museum View” should be a tantalising taster of the physical experience. It should encourage people to actively seek that “real” experience out, but unless changes are made to its current format, I’m worried it may just do the opposite.