Nothing gets a librarian’s blood pressure up more than the suggestion that Google is a replacement for libraries. It is a subject that has been addressed at length in the literature of the field as well as in countless blogs and other online arenas. Although it is clear that Google cannot replace brick and mortar libraries or the librarians and information professionals that run them, it is a question that surfaces again and again. However, we librarians may have some company in the near future as Google brings the collections and exhibitions of museums around the world to the masses.
Launched in 2011, the Google Art Project began as an effort to provide access to high-resolution images of artwork from the collections of 17 different libraries. That number quickly grew to over 150 in 2012, and by the close of 2013, the project had been subsumed into the much grander Google Cultural Institute. The Google Cultural Institute not only provides high-resolution images of various items from museums around the world, but allows visitors to virtually explore those museums using their Street View technology. Additionally, it includes the World Wonders Project, and Archive exhibitions. The World Wonders project allows visitors to use Street View to explore historic sites around the world. The archive exhibitions allow museums and other institutions to provide access to the wealth of information contained in their archives. While many of the collections come from institutions Google has directly partnered with, Google now offers Google Open Gallery, a suite of free tools and a custom culturalspot.org domain for institutions and artists to put their content online.
There are many advantages to these projects from both the user and museum’s standpoint. For users, the sites are welcoming and intuitive. Users can create their own galleries of items from museums around the world and share them with friends. For museums, the platform allows the institutions to reach out and create new virtual relationships with people around the globe. Additionally, there is the advantage of space. Museums can create virtual exhibitions without having to create a physical installation. This is space, time, and money saving. But the biggest boon to all is that it is free to create and free to use.
The greatest disadvantage to the Institute is that many libraries and museums have already invested in various infrastructures to host their digital collections, such as CONTENTdm, Omeka, and Fedora, to name a few. They have developed highly customized frameworks that allow the institutions to describe their collections according to their own standards. It is highly unlikely that these institutions will suddenly migrate to Google. Google will need to do a lot of convincing if they wish to become a one-stop portal to the cultural contents of the museums of the world.
Returning to the question that titles this post – will Google replace museums? In short, no. Museums protect and preserve our cultural heritage and collective memory. They are educational institutions as much as shrines to our past; and the expertise of museum curators and staff is crucial to understanding that past. Just as nothing can replace the mentally stimulating and scholarly atmosphere of the physical library; there is no substitute for the historical contemplation and self-reflection inspired by the museum itself.
The Google Cultural Institute can be found at: https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute