Last week we joined the Google Art Project, and yesterday I received the first of what I anticipate will be a steady stream of helpful communications from interested persons who may now gain access to reproductions of objects in our collection directly through Google, and obviously know far more about a particular object than we do. An exquisite example is this charming small painting by George Chinnery of a young man playing a guitar. A colleague in Britain has let me know that his sheet music may now be identified as Fantaisie, Opus 7, by Fernando Sor (1778–1839) whose name can be read at the top, a piece that was originally dedicated to the Austrian-born French composer and pianoforte builder Ignaz Joseph Pleyel. All this is due to the sharp eye of James Westbrook, of the Guitar Museum in Brighton, to whom we are most grateful.
As Roberta Smith remarked in yesterday’s New York Times, “The top contributor [to the Google Art Project] is the Yale Center for British Art, which has uploaded images of 5,414 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings by 580 artists—about 10 to 12 percent of its entire collection and everything in the public domain that appears on its own Web site—including scores of works by John Constable and J. M. W. Turner.” In fact, we have put up all our paintings and sculptures that are in the public domain, and it is only a matter of time before all the many thousands of works on paper go up in tranches. This is merely an extension of our new policy of open access that, together with partner institutions including the British Museum, we have lately implemented—that is, to make available free of charge easily downloadable high-resolution images of anything in our collections that is out of copyright, so that they can be published anywhere, in any form, printed or digital, without a fee for permission to reproduce. We ask only that our users let us know where our things appear, so that we can maintain as accurate a record as possible, though of course in future this, too, will be an exercise made largely redundant by increasingly powerful online searching methods that, like Googe, will eventually span whole collections.
True, there are some slightly surprising aspects of the arrangement of the images on the Google Art Project site, and a curious determination to list artists in alphabetical order of first or Christian name instead of surname. With Leonardo and Michelangelo this is not such a problem, but informed searchers may be puzzled to find Arthur Devis listed under A, and Jonathan Richardson under J. No doubt this was the work of a computer programmer, and not a librarian. I am sure they will get around to fixing this.
The awesomeness of the whole exercise may be illustrated by the following scenario. You see a winsome detail of a painting or sculpture in an advertisement on the side of a bus, and are curious to know what it is. You take a photograph of it with your smart phone. The relevant Google art app will then correctly identify the original work, and not only bring you the pertinent information and a full reproduction but also provide a link to the parent institution’s web site, and, in the case of MoMA, for example, show you exactly where it hangs on which wall, and in what gallery—together with a map. Instantaneously. One prays that this will not provide too convenient a blueprint for future generations of thieves, and that our security measures are sufficiently robust, but I also notice that such qualms when expressed in meetings by cautious art museum curators in the firm grip of middle age can at times be greeted with soothing noises of good-natured indulgence by much younger colleagues who are completely embedded in the world of information technology.
There was a time, not so long ago, when hunting for a work of art involved shuffling through black-and-white photographs in any number of cardboard boxes, or an exercise in memory. One thinks of needles and haystacks. The Google Art Project promises to revolutionize the process, and it seems just incredible.