Linda Spurdle (L); Danny Birchall (R)

Head to head

Linda Spurdle; Danny Birchall , Issue 113/05, p19, 01.05.2013
Is the Google Art Project good for museums?
Danny Birchall is the website editor at the Wellcome Collection, London; Linda Spurdle is the digital manager at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Dear Linda

Google has transformed the way that knowledge is organised and shapes the way we use the internet. The Google Art Project (GAP), part of the vaguely sinister-sounding Google Cultural Institute, offers an impressive approach to cultural heritage, aggregating thousands of works from hundreds of museums.

But Google can be capricious with its largesse. Many are still reeling from the sudden closure of its popular Reader service. Google’s core business is not culture but advertising (over 95% of its revenue), and I can’t help wondering whether getting involved with the GAP is a good long-term investment for museums.

Danny

Dear Danny

I understand your concern about the longevity of the GAP, and I wouldn’t suggest that museums should solely publish here, but what a great place to share works.

Over the years I have seen collections websites appear thanks to a burst of funding, only for them to receive little or no marketing, fail to reach many people and disappear once the funding dries up.

The GAP offers an opportunity to showcase work on a stylish platform with no hosting costs, and brings together some of the finest of worldwide art. I believe that the GAP will make works more accessible and discoverable.

Linda

Dear Linda

You hit the nail on the head with “some of the finest”: cherry-picking for the GAP has produced a curiously flat view of art history, ironing out all the wrinkles that make real collections interesting. You make a good point too about the unsustainability of some online collections.

But does the GAP really offer any more than large audiences for selected works? When the Museum Computer Network put the GAP on trial in Seattle last year, it found that participating institutions weren’t permitted by Google to talk to their peers about the project during negotiations.

Perhaps Google sees museums less as partners in development than a source of valuable content?

Danny

Dear Danny

The recent addition of 2,000 artworks from 30 partners to the GAP was a diverse selection, including São Paulo Street Art, Birmingham Museums’ Pre-Raphaelites and Palaeolithic flint heads from Spain.

When I asked the GAP what it wanted from us, it said that the choice was entirely ours. It had to be art, but it was up to the museum to define what art was. There were no restrictions set in terms of talking to peers or anything else.

GAP licenses museum images, it doesn’t own any rights to them. It would be a shame if misconceptions stopped museums from partnering with the GAP.

Linda

Dear Linda

I’m glad that working with Google was a positive experience for you: museums need all the friends that they can get.

But I don’t think that we should let the obvious glamour and power of Google allow us to forget other friends. Services such as Culture Grid and Europeana, for instance, offer more comprehensive approaches to cultural heritage, including artefacts and archives as well as art, aggregating museums’ own collections data and making focused collaborations possible.

Google might want to “organise the world’s information”, but I don’t think museums should give up organising our own just yet.

Danny

Dear Danny

I agree that services such as Culture Grid and Europeana are a good thing for museums, but so is GAP. As you know, the beauty of digitised objects is that once created they can be used for multiple purposes.

It makes sense to share content with several partners that can help us to reach both general and specialised audiences. Working in this way, museums could partner with GAP, other services and release open data in their quest to have their collections found and used.

Google has the advantage of being a household name and museums shouldn’t be shy of exploiting that.

Linda

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