How Arts & Culture Became a Quarantine Juggernaut

The Google platform works with local curators and archivists to present museum-quality exhibitions online.
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Google Arts & Culture worked with the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in San Juan to digitize artworks, such as El Gobernador Don Miguel Antonio de Ustáriz (1792) by José Campeche y Jordán. Courtesy Google Arts & Culture


If cultural venues were caught off guard by the world’s recent shuttering, an inconspicuous arm of a tech behemoth has been quietly laying the groundwork to keep museums and visitors in touch. Here, Google Arts & Culture, an online app established in 2011, has found itself in the position of juggernaut, harnessing the company’s technological fluency and global reach to make some of the world’s treasures accessible to all. These offerings aren’t limited, either, to the collections of museums; users can explore textured reconstructions of Mayan architectural ornament or even stroll through Versailles in VR. The breadth and depth of content are meaningful (and addictive, as many will testify), especially for millions still enduring the sluggish, anxious days of quarantine.

“We are one part of the answer which the world has provided to this terrible situation,” says Laurent Gaveau, who runs Arts & Culture’s Paris-based lab. Once composed of a handful of the usual fine arts suspects in Western Europe and the U.S., Arts & Culture now encompasses over 2,000 institutions in 80 countries, including partners in natural history, science, and street art. Engineers work with local curators, archivists, and museum employees to present artworks alongside interactive narratives. “Our project is meant to be at their service and to help them fill a gap in terms of resources, access, and skills,” he adds.

El Gobernador Don Miguel Antonio De Ustáriz By Campeche Y Jordán, José Icp

Its powerful Art Camera enabled a high-resolution capture of the painting, which is presented as part of a virtual exhibition that elucidates histories, techniques, and details embedded in the work. Courtesy Google Arts & Culture


Despite its mammoth collection and Herculean efforts, Arts & Culture modestly hews to a fine line between curator, presenter, and producer, careful not to eclipse the museums themselves. “We are a tech company—we have no artistic expertise,” Gaveau emphasizes. “We are here to provide the tools so they can make all curatorial decisions.”

Larger institutions with already-digitized collections sometimes provide imagery; if not, “we bring in the Art Camera,” says Gaveau. Still, he continues, “we noticed that in some territories we needed to be more proactive,” prompting more self-started engagements with institutions in Africa and Southeast Asia. “It’s a gap,” he admits.

But all in all, Gaveau and the team are proud of the project’s success and newfound relevance, noting a recent increase in users and expedited work on new launches. “I think the way we maintain this relationship online is key for when they reopen. That makes me optimistic.”

You may also enjoy “A New Video Takes Viewers Into the Vitra Design Museum’s Chair Collection.

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Categories: Arts + Culture