Behind the Screens of the Google Art Project

Google Art Project at the de Young

When I joined the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco as an intern nearly a year ago, I was charged with the dream-of-a-lifetime task of adding works from the de Young’s collection to the Google Art Project, an online collections database.

Roughly 2,000,000 people visit the Google Art Project each month to view the over 57,000 artworks from museums all over the world. The de Young is committed to making its collections accessible to the broadest possible audience, so joining the Art Project in 2012 seemed like a natural manifestation of this mission. In addition, the de Young, like the rest of the museum community, is grappling with how to keep up with rapidly changing technology.  By partnering with Google, the museum benefits from their expertise, investment, and commitment to creating technology for the cultural community. Right now Google offers two cutting-edge, free tools to museums—Street View mapping and Gigapixel photography. Over the last few months, I have been organizing these two initiatives, and here is how it all came together…

Gigapixel Scan

A Gigapixelscan is an extremely high-resolution photo imaging process. Step one is to set-up the artwork in a light-controlled room. Then, through a process known as “tiling,” a camera takes hundreds of small photographs of a work. Using proprietary software, the images are subsequently “stitched” together into one color-accurate image. At one billion pixels, viewers have the unique ability to zoom in on a work and see it in minute detail—an experience akin to looking through a microscope.

Google Art Project at the de Young

Google asked the de Young to select just one work from its collection. With over 170,000 objects in the collection, how does one choose?  While many works in the de Young’s collection are worthy of this special attention, Richard Diebenkorn’s Seawall was selected for the following reasons:

  • Only about 60 works in the world have received this unique photo treatment. Because of copyright, a gigapixel representing mid-century modernist movements did not exist.
  • Scanning Seawall would help the de Young stand out from the roughly 400 cultural institutions featured on the Art Project
  • Highlighting Seawall aligned with the museum’s long-term curatorial attempts to bring attention to Diebenkorn’s work
  • Google’s preferred shoot and launch schedule coincided with the exhibition, Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953—1966

When Seawall went live on the Google Art Project in September 5, 2013, visits to the de Young’s page more than doubled. Learn more about Seawall and the Gigapixel process by watching this Google Art Talk that took place earlier that year in July.

Street View

Once the Gigapixel scan launched, the next item on my list was to coordinate the Street View mapping of six of the American Art Galleries. Street View is a tool that enables anyone with an internet connection to virtually visit the de Young. Equipped with a specialized camera designed to replicate 3D spaces, the Google team visited the museum on a quiet Monday morning when the galleries are closed.  

The camera sits on a trolley that is about two feet wide and five feet tall.  Under the camera sits a computer that geo-locates the trolley in the room based upon floor plans as well as lasers that bounce off the walls. This apparatus is a modified version of the technology Google uses to make maps. For about three hours, Google engineers maneuvered the trolley through the galleries, hallways, and around display cases.   Much like the Gigapixel, the images captured on-site were then later stitched together to form one unified 360-degree panorama.

Google Art Project at the de Young

Through the Street View function more than 200 objects are now accessible online, including a diverse range of sculpture, painting, decorative arts, and Native American basketry. This virtual experience is enhanced by links to object records that enable art enthusiasts to zoom in on the work of art and learn more about it from the curators via video and audio content.

I hope you will virtually explore the galleries.  To get started, check out some of my favorites:

The Fine Arts Museums plans to make even more of its collections accessible on the Google Art Project and will be adding artworks in the coming months. Visit back often to see what other treasures are available to enjoy!