Google Culture: Culture Online For Everyone

Posted filed under Collections, Internet, Museums.

The Google Cultural Institute plans to make artifacts like the Dead Sea Scrolls — from museums, archives, universities and other collections around the world — accessible to any Internet user. ‘We’re building services and tools that help people get culture online, help people preserve it online, promote it online and eventually even create it online’”, said Steve Crossan, director of the institute, which is based in Paris.

The New York Times reports: “The plans for the Cultural Institute grew out of the Dead Sea Scrolls initiative and another pilot project for Google in Israel, in which it helped bring the photos and documents of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial onto the Web.

Previous Google cultural programs have also been incorporated into the center, including the Google Art Project, a digital repository of pictures from museums like the National Gallery in London, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Now the institute is building up its activities in Paris, where it will be one of the anchors of a sprawling new Google headquarters for Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, which is set to open next year.

So far, the institute is mostly just a team of engineers working on projects like the ones in Israel. Among the first projects are partnerships with the Palace of Versailles, to help it develop galleries devoted to the history of the chateau, and with the Nelson Mandela Foundation in South Africa. Other plans will be announced soon, Mr. Crossan said.

In addition to working with individual museums and archives, Mr. Crossan said, the engineers intend to develop a standard set of tools that any institution could use to digitize its collection. That way, even small, private archives or collections could be placed online in formats that would make them easily accessible to broad audiences.

When the new building opens, the institute will get a physical presence, including a gallerylike area featuring exhibits on how to present culture in an increasingly digital world.

Google plans to invite cultural figures for talks before live audiences, which will be filmed and posted on YouTube, the company’s video sharing site.

Steve Crossan, Head of the Google Cultural Institute at the Avignon Forum

“We’ll discuss all kinds of things — subjects that are of relevance to Google, but really just subjects that are of relevance to the cultural world and the world of technology more generally,” Mr. Crossan said, in his first interview since plans for the institute were disclosed. “It’s one of the ways we actually wanted to connect with the cultural world.”

“We’re engineers; we’re technologists,” added Mr. Crossan, who does, however, have a history degree from Oxford. “We hope we bring competence in storing large amounts of data and serving it and creating a good experience for users, but we’re not professional curators or historians or artists ourselves, so we need to connect with that world.”

Indeed, Google has sometimes struggled to persuade cultural leaders to accept its plans. The company has been sued by authors and publishers on both sides of the Atlantic over its book-digitization project. In 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged hundreds of millions of euros toward a separate digitization program, saying he would not permit France to be “stripped of our heritage to the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is.”
Mr. Crossan said Google was providing its services to the cultural institutions at no cost, with no immediate expectation of a financial return. Why would Google, a publicly traded, profit-motivated company, take such a step? Philanthropy and public relations are not the only goals, Mr. Crossan acknowledged.

“There’s certainly an investment logic to this,” he said. “Having good content on the Web, in open standards, is good for the Web, is good for the users. If you invest in what’s good for the Web and the users, that will bear fruit.”