Google's street view travels inside museums

(Courtesy Google Art Project
Van Gogh's Starry Night in Google's Art Project

Years ago, if you wanted to see Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus," you purchased a ticket to Florence. Or maybe you studied the painting in a tattered art book left over from your days as an Art History major. But, no longer. Last week 17 museums, including the Uffizi, the MoMA, and the Palace at Versailles teamed up with Google's Art Project to give you the ultimate virtual art experience. The project uses Google's Street View to take you inside the museums so you can "walk" the halls of some of the world's most famous exhibits.

The project was conceived when a group of self-professed art lovers at Google decided it was high time to make art more accessible to the public for free. And then, Google being Google, they blinked, snapped their fingers, and magically it happened. The team at Google's Street View, responsible for creating the "last zoom layer on the map," used a "trolley" to capture 360-degree images of the museum interiors and then stitched those images together. The result is a seamless photo-log that lets you tour the museum and zoom in on hundreds of fine paintings and sculptures. Once you select a painting or sculpture to view, a panel provides additional information about the artwork, such as Youtube videos.

But if just viewing a painting isn't enough for you, keep zooming. Each of the 17 museums has selected, at its own discretion, one piece of artwork to be featured and photographed in such fine detail (7-billion pixels!) that you can view it at near sub-brushstroke level. Take, for example, Van Gogh's "Starry Night" from the MoMA's art collection. The picture is captured at a high resolution (that's around 1,000 times more detailed than your average digital camera) so that you can see each brushstroke and crack in the paint in microscopic detail.

And if that's not enough, you can create your own gallery (because, in this digital era, what's the point if you can't let everyone know what you like?). The "Create an Artwork Collection" feature allows you to select your favorite pieces and create your own collection. You can share it with friends and family, and add comments to individual pieces or the entire collection.

Of course, this technology doesn't come without scrutiny. Critics argue that digitized museums may take the place of the real thing, or actually detract from the experience of seeing a piece live and in color. As The Daily Beast says, " at its best, the one-on-one, hours-long, in-the-flesh encounter with a work of art in a museum can be thought of as an antidote to the disembodied, Google-powered rush of laptop-life…the Art Project risks collapsing the two experiences."

What do you think? Will you visit these virtual museums? Does technology take away from the authentic experience?

—Madeline Grimes

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