Google Arts and culture has turned 10 years old. Google’s initiative makes museums from all over the world available across platforms – web, iOS and Android. The aim is to give users the opportunity to explore art, history and wonders of the world – from zooming in on Van Gogh’s paintings to taking a virtual tour of Delhi’s heritage. Among the team’s latest projects is a tool that can find your pet’s doppelganger in art; and a selection of fun, cultural games and artwork that bring climate data to life.
As India celebrates 75 years of independence, Google Arts & Culture is joining the celebrations with a number of initiatives. On the occasion we spoke with Simon Rein, Senior Program Manager, Google Arts & Culture. London-based Rein joined Google in 2013. Previously, he worked at the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in public relations for the 19 State Museums in Berlin and for the Humboldt Forum in the Berlin Palace. In the interview he talks about Google Arts & Culture’s trip to India, plans for the 75th Independence Day and more
Q. Tell us more about this new exhibition you are presenting on India’s 75th Independence Day? What is the purpose and motivation behind this introduction?
We built Google Arts & Culture to make the world’s cultural treasures accessible to everyone and to help museums and other organizations share more of our diverse heritage with the world. As Google Arts & Culture, we have been working with Indian partners for 10 years. It was therefore natural for us to take part in the celebrations of India’s 75 years of independence. For this occasion, we went beyond the narration of archives and tried something special: bringing together the spheres of archives and artists. We’ve collaborated with ten Indian artists to narrate some of the most remarkable achievements in the history of modern India in more than 120 illustrations. We wanted to enable people across India and around the world to learn more about India’s journey through some of its defining moments. But we also wanted it to be interactive and fun. That’s why we partnered with an Indian quizzer to create the first Indian crossword on Google Arts & Culture.
Q. How has Google Arts and Culture’s journey in India been over the past ten years?
Over the past decade, Google Arts & Culture has showcased the rich culture of India in a variety of ways. This journey began in 2012 when the National Museum and Gallery of Modern Art joined our platform and has continued ever since. We are proud to have partnered with Indian institutions to bring India’s cultural heritage closer to people around the world. Today, people from all over the world can explore 2,100 exhibitions offered by more than 100 partners in India.
Q. What kind of challenges have you encountered in dealing with museums, curators and officials, especially in India?
In fact, there are always challenges. Every artwork and project is different and we must treat it with respect and find the best way to show it. Much of Indian art has an invaluable cultural heritage dating back thousands of years. This means that many of the artifacts are fragile and sensitive to light and moisture, requiring extremely careful handling. For this reason, we have also developed technologies that help to meet the challenge of preserving these works. Let’s take Art Camera as an example. So much of the beauty and power of art lives in the details. We know that people love to experience art up close. Millions of people spend time exploring our ultra-high-resolution “gigapixel” images, inch by inch, discovering something new every time. With the Art Camera, museums can digitize these works for the global public while ensuring they are preserved for future generations.
Q. How many museums/institutes use the Google Arts and Culture platform in India?
Today, people from all over the world can explore 2,100 exhibitions offered by over 100 partners in India.
Q. Who is your biggest audience in India?
We are happy that many people in India are enjoying Google Arts & Culture as it makes museum visits and cultural archives more accessible. Some people just can’t go to these places, some want to take a closer look at the paintings they saw, others want to learn more about different aspects of their heritage at home. It touches on different topics, which also allows different groups to use it in different ways. For example, we think this new collection India Ki Udaan – published in English and Hindi – can be easily used in classrooms and by families to teach history and culture about India.
Q. Do you also have partnerships with state or central government?
Yes we do. In addition to cultural institutions, artists and curators, we also work with governments. In India, we have been collaborating with the Ministry of Culture for Handicrafts in India; with the Ministry of Tourism on the Incredible India campaign; and with the Ministry of Railways through Indian Railways.
Q. In terms of your engagement with arts institutions in India, can you address any India-specific challenges that the team faced?
I would like to direct your question to where I see the great opportunity for a platform that connects cultural collections from all over the world. A few years ago I saw the landmark exhibition “India & the World” at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. It was amazing to see millennia of Indian culture alongside the global context of its time. I hope the same from a culture platform that enables you to understand a country’s cultural heritage in a larger context. It’s also worth noting that most museums can only show a fraction of their collection – digital collections allow more of their holdings to be shown across museums and borders. Every time I visit India I am inspired to see how museums like the National Museum of Modern Art Gallery and so many others are experimenting in the digital space.
Q. Are there any India-specific best practices/experiences that you have taken with you to other countries? How do you see the platform change/development with Street View in India?
Culture is more than what you find in museums. You can look around and see culture everywhere. This is especially true for India. That’s why you can find an Indian Railways topic on Google Arts & Culture – you can tell the story of Indian Railways from a cultural point of view. And that is why, in embracing the rich heritage of handicrafts in India, we not only displayed the artifacts, but also visited villages across India to capture the traditional processes of their manufacture and what we can learn from them today.
As far as Street View is concerned – this technology is actually not new to us, Google Arts & Culture was created in 2011 from a 20 percent project. A small group of art lovers at Google wondered how we could turn our passion into a project. Empowered by recent technological innovations in smartphones, cloud storage, ultra-high definition digital photography and the synthesis between them, this small group felt compelled to reach out to museums striving to make their collections more accessible through digitization, including Street View by cultural spaces . You’ve seen Street View cars and Street View Trekkers, but what about the Street View trolley? This is the one that collects indoor Street View images. This high-tech wheelbarrow was originally developed in 2009 to give viewers a museum tour experience. In India, we work with the Archaeological Survey of India to capture its monuments such as the Taj Mahal, or with the Heritage Transport Museum to capture the Kolkata tramway in 360 degree images.
So how do we see the development of the platform? Many of our latest innovations are about how to make your connection engaging and fun. We have developed camera features for the Google Arts & Culture app, such as Pocket Gallery, which uses augmented reality to create virtual museum rooms, art filters to play with, or pet portrait, which allows you to find your pet’s own art double among tens of thousands of works of art. We also develop cultural games – whether crosswords or artistic puzzles – that help people to learn through play.
Q. Do you have any special plans for Google Art & Culture 10th Anniversary in India?
We hope that the fusion of technology and India’s rich cultural heritage will provide many more opportunities to share compelling stories, exhibits and experiences that can be enjoyed by anyone, wherever they may be. In the future we will continue to work with partners and artists to expand the India Ki Udaan collection – it is an ongoing initiative for us.