Google’s Cultural Institute and the Disruption of the Museum Experience

What happens when big tech and culture collide?

Photo by Igor Miske,

Google’s Cultural Institute, a born digital platform, is providing a compelling and unprecedented look at the future of museums and the way we collectively experience global arts and cultural content institutionally — especially in a time when we are quite possibly seeing the last days of federal funding for arts and humanities in the United States. The Google Cultural Institute was born out of Amit Sood’s experimental Google Art Project in 2011. Sood wanted to explore how technology could help supplement the museum experience and create a kind of access to art and culture that he did not have growing up in India. Amit Sood is now director of the Google Cultural Institute, a “not-for-profit initiative that partners with cultural organizations to bring the world’s cultural heritage online. [Google] builds tools and technologies for the cultural sector to showcase and share their gems, making them more widely accessible to a global audience.”

In addition to providing 360 degree virtual tours of museum spaces themselves using Google’s Street View technology, Google has also designed a super high resolution Art Camera that zooms in further than most naked eyes can see on the physical artwork in museum galleries that are typically barricaded for the safety of the work. In this case, art and technology are responding to one another symbiotically: cultural institutions are utilizing Google technologies to expand their experiences, and Google is making new technology to better enhance the cultural institution and experience. The Institute serves cultural institutions, the culturally curious, and artists active today. There are free digital tools for collection management, exhibition showcasing, maps, art talks, and storytelling videos. There is a mobile app version. There is also an artist residency in The Lab in Paris, where tech and creative communities meet to share ideas for new ways to experience arts and culture.

Participating museums see the digitization of all or part of their collections as serving a core mission of placing their art “where the people are,” and some have even built new partnerships and programming with museums across the world when they realized they had similar items in their own collections. Additionally, several of the museums are not widely known, nor do they adhere to typical standards of the Western canon, bringing a refreshing and elevated platform to overlooked gems that are often overshadowed by larger, traditional institutions.

Examples of cultural projects and content:

As a researcher, I find the possibilities of digitized culture exciting and fruitful, though I maintain a realistic perspective that we are still collectively exploring the borders and bridges of physical and digital realities and the myriad of possibilities and challenges it ushers along with it. My first MA was in English Literature, and I was able to access most of my obscure, out-of-print primary works through the Google Books archive by searching for keywords, a Google project that was not without its hiccups and oversights. BUT, I often found books through Google that I was then able to access in whole through Hathitrust Library. It expanded my ability to do research and my access to materials. The accessibility of and research prospects for hi-definition, microviews of artworks across the world are filled with opportunity for new questions and scholarship within our 21st century socio-technological contexts.

I also see a lot of opportunity for creative educators, particularly in arts and humanities, who are interested in the intersection of culture, digital interfaces, and technology. For now, inclusion in Google’s Cultural Institute is via invitation only. In the meantime, anyone wanting to create their own digital exhibition can do so through the Google Open Gallery (a product of the Cultural Institute) by requesting an invitation.

Some critics worry about the big data Google is likely collecting as a result of this project or that digitization somehow cheapens the museum experience. Amit Sood and museum professionals involved in the project seem to agree that digitizing these works sparks curiosity in the originals and acts as a supplement to museum experiences in unprecedented ways. Others have noted the potential and/or risk of Google using machine learning and AI to curate exhibits. Either way, Google’s Cultural Institute is fostering creative, innovative models for the museum sector and providing arts and cultural experiences in open and accessible ways at a scale we’ve never seen before.

Is there a larger role the Google Cultural Institute can play in the event of the dissolution of the NEA and NEH? Time will tell. For now, check out Amit Sood’s TED Talk below for an overview and demo.

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