What You Won’t See on the Google Art Project

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If you haven’t already checked out the Google Art Project, you should. It’s a very nice implementation of Google’s Street View interface that lets you wander a very small slice of 17 worldwide museums, plus view certain selected artworks at an almost obscene level of high-resolution zoom. But in a predictable conflux of technology bumping up against the fortress mentality of museum curation, the experience ends up as tantalizing torture for what you’ll never get to see this way.

The FAQ for the Google Art Project spells it out:

Google approached the museum partners without any curatorial direction, and each museum was able to chose the number of galleries, artwork and information they wanted to include, based on reasons specific to them. … Some of the paintings and features captured with Street View were required to be blurred by the museums for reasons pertaining to copyrights.

Any modern museum patron has no doubt encountered the restrictions on taking pictures while physically present in a museum, sometimes changing from gallery to gallery or even from work to work. This isn’t the museum’s fault (necessarily), as they often don’t own the art on display, or don’t own the reproduction rights to it, or any of an infinite number of permutations in the penumbra of international copyright law. However, the museums do own a lot of the art they display, and thus the rights to that art, which for some works can be at least as valuable as the art itself. How many mousepads adorned with Monet’s Water Lillies sit placidly on desks worldwide, do you think?

So, the addictively pretty high-res art imagery you can see on the Google Art Project represents works that the participating museums own and have permitted Google to scan and display. But the museums don’t own everything. Again from the FAQ:

The high resolution imagery of artworks featured on the art project site are owned by the museums, and these images are protected by copyright laws around the world. The Street View imagery is owned by Google.

So Google actually owns pretty detailed imagery about these museums’ interiors, plus low-res imagery of the art. On the face this looks like a rights grab, but the devil’s in the details. One assumes Google’s copyright is only for these particular images — not the visual representation of the museums as a whole. (Otherwise they’d end up in a ridiculous position like Disney used to do when they attempted to copyright and trademark any and all visual representations of their physical theme parks; yes, they wanted to own your snapshots from Space Mountain.) Eventually these museums will want to do walkthroughs like this themselves. Many have something like this already, though none are as slick as Google’s version.

But what’s ultimately disappointing is that we’ll likely never have a complete, exhaustive virtual walkthrough of a major institution, because (1) they’d never get all the rights, and (2) they’re understandably still very invested in attracting physical visitors first and foremost. As usual, Google remains the undisputed master of the cultural tech tease.