Growing up in a small west Texas town, I didn’t have the opportunity to visit many art museums — especially not those with extensive, impressive collections, located on the East and West Coasts. Instead, I visited their websites. My first art history lessons took place on the Internet.
After moving to Boston, a city rich with museums and libraries and galleries, I realized that my art knowledge lacked an essential element: interpretation. I had taught myself to recognize the famous artworks and the famous artists and the famous movements, but I hadn’t learned the larger meanings of it all.
As museums open up their collections to online audiences, the challenge of imparting meaning and telling stories looms large for me. As a Research Fellow at PEM last summer, I had the chance to tackle some questions about digital platforms and impact. My research focused on assessing an online art database, Google Arts & Culture, in order to help the museum plan its future involvement with the platform.
Google Arts & Culture, originally called Google Art Project, launched in the early months of 2011 with over 1,000 works of art from 17 acclaimed museums. Over these five intervening years, institutions from around the world have partnered with Google, and the platform now offers access to tens of thousands works of art and curated exhibits.
Despite the platform’s rapid growth, there is little public information to be found regarding the actual performance of Google Arts & Culture.
For example, how many people visit the platform daily, and what are their viewing habits? Do they look at objects or exhibits? Do people leave the Google Arts & Culture platform to visit museum websites?
In order to fill in some of these blanks, I created a survey for Google Arts & Culture partners and sent it out over mailing lists and social media networks. Individuals from seventeen institutions responded, and the data I gathered reveal some unexpected conclusions.
First, partnering with Google does not appear to significantly increase a museum’s online visibility and website traffic. Respondents to my survey characterized the Google Arts & Culture traffic as “not significant” and “negligible.” Looking at the numbers, monthly online visitors to museum websites oftentimes dwarf monthly online visitors to Google Arts & Culture. In one case, a museum’s website received more than eight times the monthly views as the same museum’s Google Arts & Culture page. Another museum received less than twenty referrals from Google Arts & Culture to their museum website out of nearly 5,000,000 total website visits in one year; Google Arts & Culture accounted for 0.0004% of that museum’s annual website traffic.
Second, despite the low numbers, Google Arts & Culture partners maintain that their work with Google is positive, beneficial, and useful. They’re happy to be a part of the platform, and they intend to keep working with Google in the future. In particular, the respondents pointed to different aspects of their collaboration — Street View of the galleries, imaging with the Art Camera, and Virtual Tours compatible with Google Cardboard, for example — as valuable outcomes of their participation. Furthermore, Google offers impressive access to emerging technologies that could otherwise be prohibitively expensive, thereby allowing museums to focus more on curating intentional and meaningful digital content and less on purchasing new services and software.
Last, the qualitative findings of my research suggest that a more integrated collaboration between Google and the partners might lead to more success for the platform. As of now, partners supply content and Google supplies tools. When the tools change unexpectedly, as they have several times in the past few months, the content necessarily rearranges in turn. In other words, the two halves of Google Arts & Culture oftentimes work independently and fall out of sync, leaving the content in flux.
A more comprehensive dialogue could help the partners develop lasting exhibits and help Google optimize the platform’s interface, ultimately allowing Google Arts & Culture to best serve its online viewership.
In light of these findings, PEM is moving forward with its plans to partner with Google Arts & Culture. A recent addition to Google features art in India after Partition called, Catastrophe and Creation: Modern Indian Painting after 1947 and can be found HERE. PEM’s first online exhibition features a curated selection of works from the museum’s Chester & Davida Herwitz Collection, the largest and most important assemblage of modern Indian art outside of India.
An upcoming fashion exhibit will be included in a Google Arts & Culture “Featured Project” on fashion, and, looking forward, PEM will continue to look out for ways to participate in the platform’s collaborative and themed releases.
Read the full report here.
Visitors to Google Arts & Culture can browse more than 200,000high-resolution digital images of original artworks, 7 million archival artifacts, over 1,800 Street View museum captures, and more than 2,000 online exhibitions curated by experts. Works are searchable by color, art movement, time period, historic events and more. Read PEM’s full press release HERE.
For more on PEM’s involvement in the Google Art Project, see this recent story in the Salem News. In the story, Lynda Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director, says that online exhibitions are forcing us to reconsider the definition of the word “global.”
“What we think is ‘local’ is ‘global’ for a lot of people. But what is ‘global’ for us can be ‘local’ for people in another place,” Hartigan said.
“Because culture is constantly evolving, the desire for us to connect with people through ideas and projects like the Google Art Institute is a meaningful way to start having conversations and making connections in ways that aren’t simply going to happen if people can’t come here.”
Formerly a Summer Research Fellow at PEM, Rachel Thompson works as Research & Special Projects Associate in Integrated Media. She holds an AB from Harvard College in Social Anthropology and Comparative Literature, and she is currently trying to raise her new puppy, Furginia Woolf in Salem, MA.