“The private collection of the entire world”: The British Museum hops on the digital bandwagon

In keeping with one of From Stone to Screen’s goals, to allow collections to be seen by a wider audience, it seems that the British Museum has jumped on the digital bandwagon in the hopes of creating a wider accessibility. Working with Google Street View, the British Museum now gives people the chance to experience a virtual tour of its galleries. The idea itself isn’t new – back in 2011, Google became involved with a project started by a group of “art-loving Googlers” and teamed up with 17 of the world’s top museums to showcase selected works of art through Google Street View. The project is called, quite simply, the Art Project. The Art Project site itself offers in-depth information on these museums, such as the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, including floor plans, over 1000 high-resolution pieces and Street View imagery. Altogether, the Art Project is part of a number of projects that are a part of the Google Cultural Institute.

Trolley and the mechanical engineers, ready for work. Google blogs.

To collect this imagery, Google had to adapt how they capture Street View images. Since a car is what is typically used, and indoor spaces cannot accommodate this, the team switched to a push cart, which they named Trolley. It was mounted with a panoramic camera, lasers to capture distances, motion sensors to track Trolley’s location, a hard drive for data storage, and a laptop to operate everything. Now, the British Museum can be included as part of this trend towards greater accessibility of museum collections.
The Google Cultural Institute allows one to explore many different projects pertaining to culture that Google has become involved in. The Art Project is just one of them and the virtual experience of the British Museum is a feature of the project. This part of the website lets the user interact with the seven temporary exhibits that are currently on display at the museum: “Containing the divine: a sculpture of the Pacific god A’a”; “Egypt after the Pharaohs”; “Celtic Life in Iron Age Britain”; “Poetry and Exile”; “Social fabric: African textiles today”; “Celebrating Ganesha”; and “Bonaparte and the Battle of Waterloo.” All of the exhibits contain high resolution images, a total of 4,699 to be exact(!), which can be closely examined along with accompanying information about the piece at hand. You can also access Museum View from here and experience a British Museum that is completely deserted and looking quite tranquil, as if you’ve managed to sneak in before even the employees have arrived for work. You can explore the different floors that house the permanent galleries and virtually wander through the rooms.


Image taken from Google Street View

The Museum of the World microsite works to connect different cultures, divided into categories – Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceana – through time and space. The site itself is visually appealing. With the help of arrows, the user can move forward and backward in time and look at specific points on the time line. Clicking on one will connect it to other dots in different regions. There are also unifying themes – art and design, living and dying, power and identity, religion and belief, trade and conflict – that users can choose to examine. Each dot on the timeline gives an overview of the object, a map of its place of origin, an audio clip, and a list of related objects. The timeline goes all the way back to African rock art and the “Early Acacus” period, which researchers believe could go as far back as 11,000 years ago. The timeline continues all the way up to the present time, with artifacts from the mid-20th century.

Screen grabs of the microsite

Museum of the World microsite. British Museum Blog.

This is not to say that Google Street View can replace the experience of seeing this and other museums first hand – there is something about navigating your way around clumps of tourists clamoring to take as many pictures as they can and observing the looks of deep concentration through to pure boredom on various people’s faces as they make their way around the galleries. The ability to almost touch an ancient object is an exciting prospect which seems to be heightened by proximity. So even though you can see an artifact quite up close through a computer screen, it’s physical distance still registers.
It also does not include (yet, anyway) access to all of the rooms in the British Museum, but does include all of the permanent galleries and outdoor buildings. A virtual visitor also must go to a different website to learn about individual artifacts, rather than being able to learn about them simply through Street View.
However, a virtual tour of the British Museum does allow for people who have neither the funds nor mobility to make the physical trip. It allows for new ways of learning, and teaching, and the Museum of the World allows you to connect different cultures in a way that is not necessarily done by just physically visiting the museum. This project also allows for artifacts to be seen in a way that is not possible merely with the naked eye. For example, the Chinese Admonitions Scroll, dated from the sixth century, has now been captured as a high-resolution image, which allows us to see much greater detail – something we would not get by just looking at the scroll itself. The ability to zoom in on an object and still get a clear image of minute detail is something that could now almost be taken for granted, seeing how far technology has come. Yet, it is important to realize all of the effort it has taken to get to this point. The founders of the British Museum possessed the hope that the artifacts would be able to be more accessible to all, rather than the only the very rich.
As Neil MacGregor, the current director of the British Museum, writes, “The more we can work with partners in the technology sphere, and the more we rise to the challenge of making our world a digital one, the greater will be our impact on community cohesion and understanding, domestically and internationally. Through technology, the Museum’s collection can become the private collection of the entire world. And so our great Enlightenment vision moves into a phase our founders in the 18th century couldn’t even have dreamed of.” The museum has come a long way in terms of its mission and it seems to be a only a matter of time before other museums help add to this ‘private collection of the entire world.’

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