Google site lets viewers get close to the art, but Harvard’s own site has fuller collection

A detail from the Google Cultural Institute
A detail from the Google Cultural Institute shows the 1,061 items made available to it by the Harvard Art Museums. Click on the image to go to the collection.

The Harvard Art Museums collections have been online for more than a decade on their own website, but this week 1,061 high-resolution images got added to the Google Cultural Institute, bringing a bunch of cool new features.

Because the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Arthur M. Sackler Museums aren’t alone at the online institute, but just three of more than 800 collections from art museums, heritage sites, archives and other cultural institutions around the world, a big part of this is interlinking with other institution’s collections. A search for “Neo-Assyrian” at harvardartmuseums.org brings up 20 works held in Cambridge, but searching the term at the Cultural Institute site brings a smattering of works from around the world, including just one from Cambridge but also from New York, Canada, the Netherlands, Berlin and Houston. Each can be looked at in high-resolution and compared and explored in a number of ways.

To date, more than 170,000 artworks from five dozen countries are available on the site; the Harvard Art Museums joined 34 institutions for a launch June 30 that added more than 90,000 digital assets to the platform, Google said.

Deborah Kao, chief curator at the Harvard Art Museums said the step “greatly extends our digital footprint,” a good step at “an institution deeply invested in advancing knowledge about, and appreciation of, art.”

Google’s site has a “My Galleries” feature that lets users build a personalized collection and even save specific views of any item – which can be zoomed in on with a slider tool that can bring viewers even closer than the magnifying glass tool on the Harvard site.

Here’s how close you can get with Google to a Neo-Assyrian wall relief of the “Head of a Winged Protective Spirit”:

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And on the Harvard Museums’ own site:

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Also, comments can be added to art on Google, and a whole personalized gallery can be shared with other users. Google+ and video hangouts are integrated, which lets viewers talk with people in a video chat while looking at art. A feature called “Compare” allows users to examine two works or two portions of a single work side by side to look at how an artist’s style evolved over time, or to connect trends across cultures or even to delve into two parts of the same work.

There are also guided tours from expert to gain an appreciation of a particular topic or art collection.

“I am excited that the Google Cultural Institute opens another doorway to the Harvard Art Museums and our collections, creating interesting connections with other institutions,” said Jeff Steward, the museums’ director of digital infrastructure and emerging technology, in a press release. “The platform’s range complements the museums’ educational mission and, ultimately, helps to powerfully increase access to digital information about original works of art both through plan and through serendipity.”

The institute began in 2010 as a side project at the search giant and was unveiled in 2011 with the participation of 17 museums, said Amit Sood, its director, in an interview with The Guardian.  It has grown rapidly, but museums and users are assured it will always be noncommercial, and that rights to the digitized art stay with the institutions who contribute it. They also decide what goes online.

In the case of the Harvard Art Museums, that’s less than half of 1 percent of its 250,000-item collection.

For a broader look only at what’s at the Fogg (for Western art), Busch-Reisinger (Central and Northern European art) and Sackler (Asian, Islamic and Indian art), their own site could be better, as might a a visit to the renovated, combined facility to use the top-floor Lightbox Gallery, a giant screen able to display and sort every item on display.

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