Carnegie Mellon alumnus presents Google Art Project
“Museum people and software engineers speak radically different languages and basically do not choose to spend time with one another,” said Marc Donner, engineering director for Google’s New York City office, during a lecture last Thursday in Rashid Auditorium. His Google Art Project aims to bridge the gap between the computer world and the art world.
Donner, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, entertained the idea of a digital art museum in 2007: “Already we see things happening in the library world that should be causing excitement in the museum world,” Donner wrote in a blog post, referring to how traditional library shelves are being replaced by scanned images of books on a server on the internet. He admitted that art is more difficult to capture digitally than are books.
“But rendering the appearance of a surface under arbitrary illumination and viewed from any distance or angle is well within the reach of most of the graphics engines incorporated into modern desktop and laptop computers,” Donner said. “The technology is available now to deliver many of the experiences we seek from fine art objects over the internet.”
Fast-forward to Donner’s lecture: After telling the story of Caravaggio, an Italian artist who was rediscovered around World War I after being forgotten when he died in 1610, Donner asked, “Are there any other great artists that we don’t know that have been forgotten by art historians and scholars and the public, buried in collections somewhere? Who believes there are no more?”
No one in the audience raised their hands. “And that’s why we need a digital museum,” Donner said.
The digital museum, Donner explained, was no easy feat. Google had the technology and the manpower to bring such an idea to life, but it needed to convince museums that the internet was not simply a channel for marketing, and that Google wasn’t just in it for the money — it was interested in expanding the appreciation for art.
After brainstorming, the company decided to use the same concept behind the Street View feature in Google Maps to produce virtual tours of museums.
The project’s first big break came when an employee in Google’s Madrid office used her connections with the Prado museum and persuaded it to let Google put 14 of its masterpieces online via Google Earth.
“We took a lot of pictures and pieced them together to try to make them various kinds of squares so you can do the arbitrary zooming that Google Earth can do,” Donner said. “It was tremendously expensive, but it made a huge splash in the art community.”
Donner said that an art historian at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, who had been discussing the idea of a digital museum with Google during this time, was impressed. “She said she was able to see things in that painting that she had never seen before,” Donner said. This was a turning point in the project: Once the Museum of Modern Art wanted to be a part of it, so did other notable museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Last February, the Google Art Project officially launched. Donner explained that the participating museums not only saw their website traffic increase, but the number of visitors — both returning customers and new art enthusiasts. Google had achieved its goal of using the internet to expand the art community.
Today, there are 151 museums and over 30,000 works of art on the Google Art Project. It currently allows users to take tours through museums, examine works of art in great detail, and chat about art pieces via Google Hangout. As for the future, Google is working on implementing Google Goggles, which will allow users to take a picture of a painting in a museum and immediately be presented with facts about it.
While the Google Art Project can be used as an educational tool, “It’s still not good enough to be a research tool,” Donner said. “But it’s beginning to show some promise in a lot of ways in which museums are trying to reach out to society at large.”