Since 2011, Google Arts and Culture has been putting together a vast virtual museum using technology to take internet users into the collections of hundreds of institutions around the world. One of these Google partners is the New Orleans Museum of Art. We recently talked to Seth Boonchai, the Digital Asset Manager at NOMA, about how virtual viewing works.
Tell us a little bit about what you do.
I hand out the cookies and I hand out the cookie jar. Basically, my role is to help coordinate the digitization of our collection and make sure that those objects that we’ve digitized stay safe, the files stay safe and then, of course, we help distribute it.
What is your partnership with Google Arts and Culture?
Google is helping us to not only digitize a few things in the collection, but also give another avenue of virtual exhibitions for our curators and education department. With Google, it’s more specific towards deep dives into either an exhibition or perhaps a deep dive into a specific object from our collection. It allows the curators and our audience engagement departments to pull selections from the collection that may be not on display, or maybe it’s something that can’t be displayed a long time because of conservation issues, and to be able to talk about that group of objects or that object in a more meaningful, more detailed way.
So this deep dive gives you an enhancement that maybe you don’t necessarily get from standing in front of an object.
Yes, it can. Like for example, for the altar piece that we have on display; the Google technology allows a viewer to actually get closer than we can physically to that object. With their giga-pixel technology, it really allows a viewer to get not only physically closer, but to get a sense of how an artist has created something, get a sense of their fingerprint, so to speak, on that piece of work.
I see, too, that you can do a virtual tour of NOMA online. You can actually click on a little avatar and go into the different rooms and see the different paintings.
Yes, it’s an idea we had a while back, to do a 3D model of the museum just to give viewers who have never been to the museum an idea of what the floor plan is and what to expect when they arrive.
We like to think that the technology is secondary to an actual visit to the museum. The technology that we are engaged in, not only with Google, but with other things that we’re doing inside the museum, helps to enhance viewer’s visits once they get there. Also, it helps bring in viewers that may otherwise not really know about the museum or never visited us.
Can a virtual reproduction of the real thing be as good as the real thing?
I never think of things as good or better. It’s just different. I have an art background, so I’ve grown up with art history books and slides and things. I’ve learned a lot about thousands of pieces of art that way, but for me, there was never anything the same as going to a museum, turning a corner and then, oh, here’s one of my favorite Klimt paintings. Hello. So, while the technology does help to give access to people who perhaps could never travel here to see something we have, it’s definitely not a replacement for actually being able to come see what we’ve got on display at the museum.
What kinds of multimedia or apps or technology will enhance the real experience of going to NOMA?
At NOMA, we already utilize several tablet-based apps and tablet-based labels. We refer to them as expanded labels … these little tablets that we use allow us to give that object more life and more meaning by just describing sections of it or pulling in context about when that object was made and what was going on in history, more things about the artist, more things about the culture as well. We’ve done this with a number of pieces in the collection already. This is independent of the Google project, but it’s a way for the visitor to come in and experience not only the piece of art that’s there, but also get a little bit more background into that piece of art.
Where is the technology leading us?
In the case of things like Egyptology or studies of mummies, X-ray devices, ultrasound scans and other non-invasive technologies have given us deeper understandings of those objects. Some cultural institutions and museums are using the same kind of ideas to get a deeper understanding of two-dimensional or three-dimensional objects that we want to preserve and share at the same time. That’s where I see the technology being of the most benefit.
The new Arts and Culture program allows you to create your own collection by pulling your favorite pieces from a number of different collections that you admire. That’s another nice way to send NOMA objects out into cyberspace to belong to individual personalized museums.
Actually, the NOMA website has always allowed that within our own collection. People who register with the website can take their favorite objects from the collection and curate their own personal exhibitions. Through Google Arts and Culture, the private or personal exhibitions you put together can be made public. You can share what your thoughts are, gather all your favorite landscape paintings or maybe cityscape paintings and share them with other users. It gives another avenue of research and another avenue of education about not only our own institution, but other institutions as well.
Museums are learning very quickly to be not only just a repository, but a community building institution and in a way to get people from the local community and a broader global community to engage with not only the collection, but the history of that collection, where those things came from, where they might be going and it keeps the collections alive in a lot of ways. The technology is a way to do that, which may be a strange thing to think about, like sort of collections zeroes and ones adding to the life of an object.
Tell us about how you access this virtual world through the Google portal.
Well, there are a number of ways to access the Google Arts and Culture web presence. First of all, there’s an app that you can download from the Apple App Store or the Android store. Another way to do it is simply go online and do a search for Google Arts and Culture and when you get there, you’ll see a tab that says maps. If you click on maps, that will take your current location and give you all the Google partners in that region. Then you can expand out from there from a radius of like, 20 miles to a few hundred miles.
So if you click on NOMA in that application, it will take you to all of the collections and exhibitions that NOMA has partnered with Google to produce on that site.
Exactly. If you are on the Google Arts and Culture site or application, you’ll have a NOMA collection. You’ll have our exhibits. You’ll have our giga-pixel image that we have so far and you also have ways to explore the collections based on color, theme, media, which is really, really fun actually.
We’re a full Google partner in that we do a lot of beta testing for things. We have a lot of experimental things that we try, and we don’t actually go live with. We’ll be using their equipment to digitize more of our collections. We’re also one of three encyclopedic museums in the Gulf South, the others being the Birmingham Museum of Art and I think the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.