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Originally published Saturday, February 5, 2011 at 7:06 PM

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17 of the world's greatest museums, brought to you by Google

Google launched the Google Art Project Tuesday, which takes viewers through 17 museums, including New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Google is bringing its "street view" technology indoors. With the launch of the Google Art Project (www.googleartproject.com), announced at a news conference in London Tuesday morning, Google jumps into the online art arena with tools that will allow web surfers to move through 17 of the most prominent art galleries in the world, with the option to look more closely at individual art works, including some that will be digitized so exhaustively that individual brush strokes and hairline cracks in the surface will be visible.

Included among the institutions that have teamed up with Google are some of the most prestigious museums in the world. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Frick Collection are participating, as is the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington. Museums in London, Madrid, Moscow, Amsterdam and Florence, among others, are also contributing.

The Freer has allowed a popular work by James McNeill Whistler, "The Princess from the Land of Porcelain," to be digitized through the "gigapixel" process, which stitches together multiple high-resolution images. A sample of one of Google's gigapixel images, provided by the Freer, suggests that users of Google Art will be able to see the faintest tracery of white paint with which the artist has made his subject's eyes glisten, as well as the nubbly, grid-like texture of the canvas underneath.

"On average there are 7 billion pixels" per image, said Amit Sood, leader of the Google Art Project. "This is a thousand times more than the average digital camera."

"The gigapixel experience brings us very close to the essence of the artist through detail that simply can't be seen in the gallery itself," said Julian Raby, director of the Freer, in a statement. "Far from eliminating the necessity of seeing artworks in person, Art Project deepens our desire to go in search of the real thing."

Many important art museums have already produced extensive databases of their collections, and provide access to some of their collections online. The Google Project differs in its combination of a "walk-through" function, letting visitors see how paintings are hung and organized as they move virtually through the collection, with the ability in some cases to see high-resolution images of specific works. It also brings prominent galleries from around the world together through a single interface, with Google's extraordinary online reach.

Sood says the Google interface will also be easier to manage and navigate, allowing users to move relatively quickly from the full picture to detail.

"Even though a lot of these images are available on museum websites, you cannot really zoom into them with the ease of this website," said Sood, from London.

Other institutions participating in the project include Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Among the iconic images that will be available through the gigapixel process are Vincent Van Gogh's "The Starry Night" (from MoMA), Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" (from the Uffizi) and Rembrandt's "Night Watch" (from the Rijksmuseum).

Absent from the list of participants are two of the most popular and important museums in the world, the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay, both in Paris.

"We approached as many museums as we could," said Sood. "But you can only wait so long for people to come on board. We just decided to stop at 17."

But if the project is successful, there will be more. Currently, visitors can access 385 gallery rooms, including more than a 1,000 high-resolution images of work by 486 different artists.

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The project will almost inevitably raise simmering concerns about Google's extraordinary power and influence in the world of online culture. Google Books has proved an extraordinary boon to scholars, both amateur and professional, but also raised concerns that even while the books available online are in the public domain, Google may develop a monopoly on access to them. While art museums may be happy to participate in the project, not all of them will want to surrender access to high-resolution images of their collections, which they use to make T-shirts, posters and other merchandise.

Previews of the new Google feature also suggest that the company is still thinking in basic terms about how to make cultural information available on the web: digitize and upload. Asked if his team had worked with experts who study the psychology and physiology of how people actually look at art, Sood said that had been left to experts at the respective museums.

Which means that experiencing art through Google Art will have its frustrations. One of the images that will be made available through the new portal is Han Holbein's 1533 "The Ambassadors," held by the National Gallery in London. The painting includes an image of a skull painted in anamorphic perspective, which makes it highly distorted when seen straight-on but legible when seen from a sharp side angle. Will the effect translate into online viewing?

"It's tough," says Sood. "We tried, we wanted to get that effect." He says it appears to better effect in the gigapixel version, but not so well in the walk-through function.

"Nothing beats the first-person experience," says Sood.

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