On the anniversary of the 1990 theft that is still the world’s most notorious art heist, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Tuesday became the first New England museum to use Google’s Street View technology to let viewers navigate their way virtually around its galleries.
The collaboration with the Google Cultural Institute allows what the Gardner describes as a “complete first-person walk-through experience” of the museum.
Of course, in reality the experience is in no way “complete,” nor is it meaningfully “first-person.” You can’t, as you enter the Gardner’s famous courtyard, smell the damp ferns, or feel the contrast of warm, humid air and cool stone. You can’t hear the sudden, secret hush. You can’t walk up the stairs, look down on the courtyard from above, or feel the emotional pitch of the constantly shifting light levels. All these things are at the core of the experience of the Gardner.
And yet, for anyone curious to know what kind of museum the Gardner is, there is no doubt that the new Google website, which is part of the Google Art Project (accessible at www.google.com/culturalinstitute), is a tremendous tool.
Online viewers can use their mouse or touch pad to move around each room, getting close to Mrs. Gardner’s objects and getting a feel for her highly personal arrangements of pictures, furniture, fabric, and objects. For teachers who want to impress upon students — students who might be anywhere in the world — what makes this museum so special, so charged with ideas, feelings, and history, it is a remarkable new development.
The Gardner is the latest of hundreds of museums around the world, including the Museum of Fine Arts, to partner with Google Cultural Institute, a branch of the giant tech company that is based in Paris and dedicated to bringing cultural treasures online.
At the moment, just over 100 of these institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Acropolis Museum in Athens, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, offer “museum views” — the ability to navigate the museum virtually — but only a few of these offer access to the entire museum.
The part of the website dedicated to the Gardner also allows close-up views of 52 individual works in the collection, with plans to include more.
None of these views, as yet, makes use of the extremely high definition close-ups Google has made available elsewhere (a special camera is required), but this may change down the track.
The website also allows users to search for artists by name, to sort them by date, to compare pairs of specific works, and to group together digital images of works not only from the Gardner but from other museums.
It still has glitches. Moving around is far from seamless, although it gets easier with practice. The lighting is disconcertingly bright, at times almost washed out, and quite out of sympathy with the actual museum even on a bright day. And the small targets that can be clicked on to connect you with specific works and associated information sometimes appear out of place — showing up in the museum’s windows, for instance, and not on the piece of art. Still, it’s a strong beginning.
For many museums, including the Gardner, partnering with Google is a way to benefit from newly available digital technologies while avoiding a great investment of money and resources.
“For us to do this on our own would be incredibly expensive,” said Gardner director Anne Hawley at the launch. The Google team, which mapped the Gardner with a specially designed trolley with a 360-degree camera affixed, did its work in one day last year.
Even as they celebrated the launch of the collaboration and trumpeted its possibilities, Hawley and Peggy Burchenal, curator of education, seemed acutely conscious of a dissonance between the virtual experience of seeing the Gardner online and the benefits of actually being there. Hawley hoped the new project would stimulate interest in the Gardner and encourage more visitors, but added that museums adopting virtual technologies cannot be sure that will happen.
Speaking at the launch, and confessing to mixed feelings of her own, Dawn Barrett, the president of neighboring Massachusetts College of Art and Design, said that because “the ideas of the world are contained in what we make,” the dissemination of those objects and ideas is incredibly important.
The Google Art Project is just the latest development in the long story of this dissemination, which has embraced the inventions of the printing press, camera, radio, television, and the Internet. Each has involved losses and gains of its own.
Future chapters in this accelerating story seem certain to see gaming and simulation technology employed to navigate museums virtually with far more viewer control and sensory information than Google currently offers.
The museum’s decision to launch its collaboration with Google on the anniversary of the heist was odd. Even odder was its failure even to acknowledge the coincidence at the launch. In some ways, it seemed symptomatic of the Gardner’s dysfunctional relationship with its own greatest disaster. The museum’s leaders know that curiosity about the heist generates huge public interest in the museum. And yet the fascination functions like fingers picking at an itchy scab. The wound can never heal.
But maybe there’s hope now on that front? Might the works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, Degas, and Flinck that were stolen 24 years ago be returned one day to the Gardner’s walls — not physically, but virtually? Younger online visitors might never know they went missing.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.