Beyond the face-matching art app: introducing the Google Arts & Culture Institute

In the US, Google’s Art and Culture app recently became one of the top free apps in the iOS app store. Its main attraction? Users could match their face with artworks from museums all around the globe.

This feature is not available in the UK, but the app is full of other treasures: beyond the certainly amusing selfie feature, users found an impressive source of culture that takes them to museums all around the globe.

Introduced in February 2011, the Google Art Project was created to get rid of the geographical barriers that limit access to art. Amit Sood, director of the project, admitted to The New York Times: “I never knew what the hell a Van Gogh was until I was 18, 19 years old.” Now, he is working to bring art to everyone that has a computer and an internet connection.

The project has succeeded in getting museums and galleries from all over the world to digitise their collections. The first institution to participate was the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Center, bringing an archive of 140,000 documents and photographs online. That same year, 16 museums from six other countries joined. Gradually Sood and his team convinced museums that, far from being a threat, the website represented a unique opportunity to renew interest in the arts and culture.

Some guarantees were needed. Importantly, museums were given the freedom to curate their exhibitions online autonomously. Google provided the technology, and the museums shaped their own online presence. This in turn facilitated international collaborations and art talks.

In addition to this, Google assured that it would not make any profit out of the content, and that museums would always own the rights over the artwork. By the project’s five year anniversary, more than 1,000 institutions had joined, offering the chance to view more than six million items.

Originally, the platform developed with Street View. Virtual visitors could ‘walk’ through many parts of the museums, and zoom on high resolution images of their paintings and sculptures. Now, users can access millions of art works, organised by theme, colours, artists, or art movement. Current as well as past exhibitions are also available.

But, as Sood explained in a recent TEDTalk, “we have something cool nowadays that everyone likes to talk about, which is machine learning.” In more basic language, machine learning means that engineers are able to program machines to learn from experience and improve over time, in order to take data-driven decisions, rather than being explicitly programmed to carry out a given task.

Machine learning offers many new possibilities for experimenting with artwork, which are displayed in the experiment section of the website. For example, Cyril Diagne, Nicolas Barradeau and Simon Doury created the t-SNE Map, “an interactive 3D landscape created by machine learning algorithms that organised thousands artworks by visual similarity.” The similarities between the artworks was calculated by a machine, without human data, creating a virtual space that users are able to navigate. 

The Google Art and Culture Institute is still growing; new partners and content are constantly being added. It is now just a matter of exploring.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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