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Internet comes of age for visual arts with new Google project

Google’s ultra-high resolution Street View cameras have been sneaking around galleries in nine countries – out of hours – to capture the world’s finest art collections as 360 degree digital tours. The Art Project was launched at Tate Britain yesterday, and includes 385 rooms, and 1061 different pieces.

Each gallery has also chosen one piece to be digitised in ultra-high resolution (7bn pixels), which allows you see a masterpiece in greater detail than the human eye and most microscopes can manage. This encourages people to study art works in depth, for better understanding technique, subject, materials/construction and realisation, and is a move away from the noughties obsession in the visual arts sector as of digitisation as a mechanism for futureproofing archiving.

Google Art Project

Nick Serota has had to assure art lovers (and insurance companies) that no security information is given away, but his most interesting comment is around the great fear that the cultural sector has of digitisation: that digitising work causes cannibalisation of the live, real experience. “When people get a glimpse, they want to see the real thing” he’s reported as saying in The Times today.

Having been shouted at twice for wanting to see an exhibit more closely and peering with my short-sighted head over the line at the National Gallery this weekend, I shall appreciate the accessibility of the work being online. I shall also be able to work out what I want to see in Paris during a short trip in April. But I know that I will not have the thrill of all the things I like in a gallery: understanding the scale of work; the way being near it makes me feel; if it smells of history or strange materials, and just trying to work out why someone else has been standing there studying the piece for a few minutes. As a sensory and social human being I know that the “real thing” cannot be replicated. I believe all human beings innately know this too, and I wish the cultural sector would more fully grasp the potential of digital for increasing access. Without digitising, we face the risk of becoming obscure.