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Google Art and the Virtual Museum Game

February 14, 2011

It’s been a while since I have posted anything about virtual museums, so here goes with a couple of new offerings and a couple that have been around . . .

Google’s Art Project went online February 1.  The reviews have rolled in that address issues of gendertechnical aspects, accessibility, and those with limited enthusiasm for the concept.  ArtInfo links to a good range of that discussion.  Besides seeing works from institutions I will never likely visit, I am impressed that the Project allows me to examine paintings in considerably more detail than I would in the museums.  I am hard pressed to understand the difference between coffee table art books sold in museum book stores/gift shops and the online Google Art Project.  Both publications are repros that represent the image beyond the original form in the museum gallery.  The latter incorporates contemporary technology.  Neither replace the real visit.  I will never forget the time as a teenager rounding the corner at the Chicago Art Institute and seeing Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles face-to-face.  But my friends in Turkey who will likely never visit Chicago should be allowed something as close to that experience as possible.

The Hampson Virtual Museum has over 400 downloadable 3-D clips of ceramic vessels and stone tools from the late prehistoric Nodena phase sites of Northeast Arkansas, US.  This virtual offering is a truly impressive site with considerable contextual information on the materials present.  This feature is missing from the Google Art Project.  An important feature of the Hampson website is the ability to download the 3-D clips of this phenomenal artistry of the Native American cultures  for later research, educational, or other viewing purposes.  The virtual display of these vessels will certainly be grist for much discussion on the display of objects often considered the private and sacred cultural heritage of Native Americans.

As a kid growing up in Southwest Ohio, I recollect the occasional pilgrimage to the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton for an air show that culminated in a display from the Thunderbirds.  The visits also included a walk through hangars that functioned as museum exhibits.  Today,  The National Museum of the United States Air Force boasts a virtual presence of panoramic views of their modern facilities and a technology ala Google Street View to explore some groupings of aircraft.  The webpage has podcasts of guest lectures and museum audio tours for on-site visits.  Though less visually spectacular than either the Google Art or Hampson Projects, the site is a an impressive resource on aviation history and the USAF.

Perhaps one of the coolest ideas on virtual museums is to create your own.  Rebecca Black brought the Museum Box site to my attention during our Museum Practices class this past fall.  Here you can load your own images, text, video files, and links, in rotating cubes within a compartmentalized box layout.  I scrolled through some of the museum boxes created to date.  I found that lots of schools are using this site for class projects of varying quality and complexity.  For some museum box is clearly just an assignment to get done, like some perspectives on life in general, yet other students and users are clearly inspired to create very cool displays.  Check this one out for possible classroom projects.

And finally, the world would not be complete without the Museum of Online Museums – thanks to Nancy Cook for bringing this one to my attention.

The long and short is that the ability for museum representation in the virtual world is becoming increasingly real.  The above sites represent a range of offerings from the complex to the basic and from simple observation to the fully engaged.  The more Luddite reactions against the virtual presence are on the wane in the same way that adages about “if humans were meant to fly they would have been born with wings” withered away.  Now is the time to consider how this technology may help our institutions to carry out our missions of outreach and engagement.

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