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Apr / May 2011
Virtual museums

Writer: Jibril Hambel

What do art museums, great painters and the world's favourite search engine have in common?  Quite a lot. Google has just unveiled its latest move to become the world's repository of literature, history, information and art with the Art Project. While the vainglorious attempt several years ago at making all books in print available online met with fierce resistance from publishers, copyright holders, and booksellers, this latest vision of being a cultural treasure chest seems to be kicking off without a hitch.

‘Art Project’, quite simply is some of the world's most renowned museums offering a wealth of paintings and virtual walking tours of the museums themselves available to those of us who don't have the time to hop around the world from New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) to the Palace of Versailles, to Amsterdam's Van Gogh museum.  Instead, Google is offering the chance to view over a dozen palaces of high art from the privacy of your own computer, and they even include such helpful tools as informative texts and high resolution zoom capacity.

Purists may think the idea of seeing ‘Starry, Starry Night’ on a laptop is fully at odds with how the artist would have wished his painting to be viewed. But then one needs consider how useful this option is for technique, and commentary and the ability to save at least some version of the world's artworks. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that looters got inside the Cairo Museum. And as Brad Pitt's character, Tyler Durden, points out in the movie ‘Fight Club’, “Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart.” Most of us have seen works that have already been restored at least once. Time is not kind, especially to wood, canvas and paint. Here, we have the option to save – in some form at least – works that will eventually whither and fade. 

What I'm curious about is the effect of viewing a painting on the digital screen versus seeing the actual acrylics, and brushstrokes. On the one hand it changes the work. But having stumbled across a complete online William Blake archive some years ago, I have to admit there's something profound about looking at Blake's manuscripts, which are actually illuminated in the form of LCD screen backlighting. I've also seen a Van Gogh exhibit where you can see the artist’s slashes and swathes of thick acrylic. So at the risk of being called a philistine, I'd really love to see some of those works in brighter than bright colours and be able to navigate around the painting, and even zoom in. That’s because what we lose in the 3-D, we tend to gain in accessibility and getting closer than close to a painter’s technique and style.

The Louvre unfortunately is not signed onto the project, at least not yet. But with a nod to the aforementioned Mona Lisa; thanks to some pyschologists we can now tell what is so captivating about the iconic work. Apparently it isn't the Gioconda smile that grabs us. What grabs us is the fact that she has no eyebrows and this tends to be unsettling to most of us, although we don't know why.

At least with ‘Art Project’ we might one day be able to check that out for ourselves by simply zooming in. Personally I liked the whole Google book project too, but then I don't live on royalties or the marketing of books. Check out the ‘Art Project’ homepage and start visiting some of the world's most acclaimed artworks. There are pieces that (should you opt for the walking tourcam approach) are unfocused, which Google points out are museum copyright issues.  For the most part however, it should provide hours of masterpiece viewing which would otherwise have been wasted on Facebook chat.

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