Google Art Project – Final Thoughts

At the start of this paper, I was excited to explore the translation of the Freer Gallery of Art to the digital platform of the Google Art Project. Of course as a student in Art History, being able to explore museums abroad from my dorm room is a great tool. Yet the experience presented by a museum in a digital format is a much different one from the traditional museum-going experience.

My findings for this paper – that there is really no viable substitute for the physical experience of an art museum – were perhaps colored from the start by the fact that I am an art historian. Viewing the works of great masters in person is ethereal, and often changes the way one has previously imagined a work to look or the emotions it can evoke. However, after digging into the literature on the museum experience as a result of many variables (architecture, display tactics, lighting, etc.), it seems that the majority feel that the museum experience is one of an almost “spiritual” connection to the objects housed within, and ultimately disseminates some form of enlightenment from a close proximity to those objects.

With that said, I was surprised to find that some of the points from Cohen and Rosenzweig’s book ( the first reading done for our class) meshed with this same feeling of “loss” inherent in the digitization of physical history. Moreover, they felt that digitization does not necessarily mean “accessible” (economically speaking), a point of contention I personally had with the Google Art Project. While I did not entirely buy into the Google Art Project, though,  its viability as a supplement to physical visits is undeniable.

All in all, I found the process of “visiting” both the physical and virtual Freer Gallery of Art and documenting the respective experiences to be an illuminating one. The process also made me appreciate being in DC, a place where one has access to so many renowned museums and thus occasion for “spiritual” and intellectual enlightenment.

The Freer Gallery of Art: Adapting the Museum to the Virtual Space

Over the past five or so centuries, the art museum has undergone several adjustments in display technique, and ultimately the experience prescribed by that construction.  There has been a large amount of scholarship done on the theory behind museum design among which a focus has been placed on the experience of the museum as a ritual, even spiritual, practice. However, the external structure of the museum and the arrangement of the collection housed within have always remained integral to the ability to contemplate and appreciate the art as imposed by those in charge.

With the increased emphasis on technology in our world, it is not a surprise that art museums would want to follow the trend in display. While art museums have been digitizing their collections to their websites for some time now, they are beginning to take the next step towards complete virtual access. The Google Art Project, a collaborative initiative between Google and some of the most prestigious museums across the globe, is allowing site viewers to navigate through these same museums via the Internet. Using Street-View technology, visitors to the Google Art Project can virtually explore the museum’s galleries in high-resolution as if walking down the physical halls of the museum space. Not only that, but visitors can focus on specific pieces of interest, zoom in to see the most minute of details, and expand wall placards to learn more about the work itself. They also have the opportunity to save the views they like most in a personalized collection that can later be shared and commented on.

Although the Google Art Project is an amazing tool for the exploration of museums both at home and abroad, museums that may be too costly to visit in real life, the project may also create a substitute for the physical experience. With that in mind, the digitizing of museum space could potentially make museums themselves somewhat obsolete. Additionally, the tool seems to upset the sanctity of the museum experience where an individual can lose themselves in a place devoid of the pressures and haste of the real world. For centuries, the museum has been treated as an almost divine space in terms of architecture and purpose as it promotes quiet contemplation and worship of the art of masters. The plan and organization of an art museum is designed to initiate a sort of conversation between the viewer and the artwork. Viewing art online is the antithesis of that traditional experience; the Internet can be accessed nearly anywhere, at anytime. The vast space of quietude omitted from the experience, it is almost impossible to focus solely on the contemplation of the artwork at hand.

Since the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is part of the project, I plan to visit the institution both physically and virtually. I will document the two experiences and compare the atmosphere in which the art is viewed, and how it impacts the reaction and connection made to the art. In writing this paper, I will then draw from the scholarship on museum theory and experience as a way to analyze the success of the Google Art Project when translating the exhibits into the virtual space of the website.

Envisioning a “Virtual” Euclid Avenue

The website for the Euclid Corridor History Project is a digital extension of a physical effort by the city of Cleveland. “The goal of the project is to capture, preserve, and archive the stories of these Euclid Avenue neighborhoods and the people that live within them though audio-based oral histories.” In order to do so, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) began the construction of a bus rapid transit (BRT) line running from Euclid Avenue to East Cleveland. Additionally, the project encompassed an entire rebuild of not only the storefronts on Euclid Avenue, but the sidewalks and landscapes as well. Digital kiosks, designed by Cleveland State University, were installed along the way to serve as “curators” for the historical sites.

With that said, the Euclid Corridor History Project online is designed with tourists in mind. In fact, it is actually a prototype for the interactive kiosks that are part of the physical project. While the website is not in working order, it appears that it will be very easy to navigate: the tabs are clearly labeled, as are the links available in each. The “Art and History” tab allows the user to click onto specific segments of the BRT, divided by neighborhood, and to select individual stops on the line, e.g. the Cleveland Museum of Art. Choosing a stop pulls up a window containing that particular site’s history, as well as photographs and audio files (such as oral history) pertaining to it.

The remaining tabs are strictly informational in nature. The “Transit Info” tab provides links to information for tourists wishing to ride the BRT, such as trip planners, maps, schedules and farecards. Likewise, the “Events and Attractions” tab is pretty self-explanatory. It is linked to, a website that announces various events and attractions coming to the Cleveland area. One can also sign up for Cleveland eNews, a service which sends automatic updates of these events.  The final tab is dedicated to Ideastream, a partner of the Euclid Corridor History Project, who manages the Ohio Public Radio and the Listening Project 2007.

The Euclid Corridor History Project seems like a great way to preserve the history of the Cleveland area and to disseminate that information in an interesting, interactive way.  Such a project, with an emphasis on the virtual and physical intersections of history, allows each and every individual to be involved in its development. Likewise, the stories are not told simply by wall placards or tour guides; there is an opportunity for the voices of those who were present to be heard through the digital portals while visitors see the history firsthand. All in all, the Euclid Corridor History Project, both online and in its physical context, is a successful means for engaging with history.


Starting-up a Digital Proposal

The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1995 established the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency that promotes research, education and public programming in the humanities. In conjunction with those aims, the NEH provides start-up grants for innovative projects in the Digital Humanities. To apply, a detailed proposal must be submitted explaining not only the digital idea and methods of implementation, but the significance to the humanities community.

The proposal required to apply for the start-up grant is comparable in some ways to the print proposal assigned in class.  The narrative section of the NEH application is meant to give an overview of the initial project ideas, the ultimate result of the project, and how the suggested methodology will benefit the overall intellectual goals. Also it is in this section that the history of the project is presented along with the preliminary planning that has taken place in the field. It is the narrative that is most closely linked to the print proposal. Both ask for the plan to be grounded in the context of the present state of research. While the print project was set within the framework of current literature, the NEH focuses on what they term the “environmental scan”, a summary of the digital work being done in the same field as a way to explain how the applicant’s project relates or contributes to the existing body of work.

A digital proposal has additional facets that do not really need to be taken into consideration in terms of a print project. First, the audience of a print project is generally assumed to be historians and other scholars. In a digital proposal, however, the audience of the tool needs to be fully flushed out, even going so far as to create the type of individual personas discussed at length by Brown. Second, the NEH application asks for a plan of dissemination for the final digital product. Through which media outlets will the project be propagated to the desired audiences? Not only that, but a statement of how will the product be maintained in the long-run is required. Also, the NEH application necessitates a list of the project staff and their responsibilities. Staff is not an issue in regards to print proposals which are produced on a much more individualized basis. Finally, the NEH has a system for determining the “innovativeness” of a project and applicants must prove their idea “innovative” based on those guidelines.

Specifically, the Kansas State University application regarding the Lost Kansas project (which did win an NEH start-up grant) aptly demonstrates the distinct questions involved in a digital project proposal as opposed to a print proposal. The application lays out how their project will advance the way that students do primary research and how communal histories are preserved. In detail, the leaders of the project set the staff responsibilities, the yearly work goals, the plan of dissemination, the history of the project idea itself. Although more in-depth than the digital project proposal required for our course, the Lost Kansas premise is good model for where to begin developing and organizing your ideas.