3 Problems with Google’s Art Project

The Culutral Heritage community is aglow with praise for the Art Project, powered by Google.  I even saw a reddit post calling the project, “The most significant advance in Art History”.  It might be top 20, sure, but it’s entirely not proven what tangible benefits will manifest from the project for the institutions providing the content.

While I applaud Google’s attention to the Museum sector, this project, even at its best, does as much to publicize museums as it does to point out shortcomings in the field.

1. There’s nothing new under the Sun.

What is at the heart of Google’s Art Project?  Zoomify and Quicktime VR.  Quicktime VR has been around since, let’s say ca. 1995, and in use for these exact “state of the art” museum virtual tours since shortly thereafter.  Zoomify became available ca. 1999, and again, was shortly thereafter used for zooming in on museum objects.  In fact, in many instances, Quicktime VR is of higher quality than the street view technology used in these basic virtual gallery tours.

Additionally, reproducing a facsimile of the gallery experience using 3d projects has sort of been done to death, whether via quicktime VR, flash or things like Second Life.  Virtual tours do not provide, as has been claimed, a “contextualized experience” when wall labels aren’t provided in legible quality and fluid 3d navigation isn’t possible.  Even when these things are possible, it has not been conclusively proven to provide a decent experience.

2. Data goes in, but does it come out?

The cross-collection building feature is really neat.  While I will address other concerns in my third point, my first concern is that what happens to the data (comments, organization of collection, etc.) and what are the mechanisms for removing it from Google.  Project like the Flickr Commons provide full access for institutions and users to retrieve their data via the Flickr API, will Google offer the same access?

Furthermore, why is it that the only conditions upon which Museum data interacts is when either a vendor controls the data (Hi, E-Museum Network!) or when a big player like Google steps in.  When we analyze the reasons vendors and big players like Google can do it, I bet we’d soon see they aren’t trying to metadata the problem to death, like MLA’s often do (death to the complicated data standard!)

3. Google plays curator

As any small institution can attest, getting into projects such as Flickr Commons or the Google Art Project, are nearly fruitless.  While I was lucky to get on board the Flickr Commons near ground level, many institutions have expressed frustration that it takes time for the big players to get to them.  Looking at Googles initial selection, I see no surprises there, its a veritable who’s who of large institutions, with a vague TBD for adding additional players.

So, is it all bad?

Not at all!  In fact, in many ways, it advances the state of collections online for many institutions, albeit in a way museums can only benefit from once they’ve been baptized by the Google Almighty.  In many ways, the project strikes a different chord than other opportunities such as Flickr Commons.  With the Commons, the Library of Congress and Flickr spent a lot of time and effort ensuring the project was not only a good fit for MLA’s, but also that the benefits of the project could mutually benefit institutions and Flickr, in fact, in many ways Flickr is getting the raw end of the deal!

Museums should take away the notion that Collections online is about MORE than just serving researchers and other MLA pros.  The polish of the zooming interface is apparent, and raises the bar for Museum interfaces on the web.

Now, it’s up to museums to take these lessons and apply them towards a system that puts the institutions in full control.