José Pijoán‘s 12-part encyclopedic set History of Art leads the imaginary ranking of the most useless volumes in my library. With time, this former practical helper providing quick insights into the history of art from ancient Egypt till postmodernism started losing on importance and became less and less useful. As proof, not only its covers were gathering more and more dust, but the set was gradually moved to less accessible shelves until one day it ended up all the way up below the ceiling in a 3.5 meter high room. What caused the end of glory of this formerly vital and widely popular encyclopedia? Quite unsurprisingly, the internet. Similar to other encyclopedic-like works, Pijoán’s books made looking for summary info on paper an excruciatingly lengthy process, while typing a key word in Google is far more practical. The result is obtained faster, the information is more comprehensive and often includes answers to very marginal questions as we learn a lot not only about the Parthenon in Athens and the Florentines masters, but also about the chapel behind our house and a local folk painter.
But what if we would like to delve deeper? What if we are interested in the works of a specific artist, a group or a school or in a specific topic and how it’s reflected on in fine arts? In this case, the search sooner or later takes us to art museum collections and the works housed inside. But how can we access them if only a negligible fraction of works is displayed? What is the usual process to gain access to the repository?
As in the times of Franz Joseph I, even today we must first write to the museum collection manager to obtain a list of works matching our requirements and if the list includes an item raising our curiosity, we ask for an appointment to access the room where the item is stored. More messages are sent out and forms filled in and after several days or weeks we finally get to see the cultural artifact for real. We’ll be able to look at it and perhaps even take a picture, provided no one is watching. Then we’ll repeat the whole process several times until we reach the conclusion that what the museum has to offer was thoroughly explored. Then we’ll move on to the next institution.
But there could be other ways. No later than at the beginning of the millennium, the Czech scene started seeing growing efforts to digitize fine arts to make it accessible. There were programmes and methodologies helping museums present their collections online, the Registry of Fine Arts Collections administered by CITeM (the Methodological Centre for Information Technologies in Museology) went online, as well as the National Museum’s eSbírky portal or recently the services of the National Gallery Prague and the Moravian Gallery in Brno built on a technology by lab.SNG (the Slovak National Gallery’s digitization center). “A reason for joy,” one would like to say. “A cause of disappointment,” one must write, though. Virtually all these projects (with the honorable exception of the Moravian Gallery) fail at the basics – the number of works published. The National Gallery which, according to the Central Registry of Collections, houses 398,444 items, makes 2,670 of them available online – less than 1% of the total. The National Museum’s collections include almost two million cultural-historical and other artifacts but roughly 60,000 (approx. 3%) of them are available online, regional or municipal galleries usually don’t publish digitized reproductions of their works at all or only in small or negligible fragments.
But the difficulties don’t end here. The reproductions’ quality varies and metadata doesn’t adhere to a unified format. But a more serious problem is user experience or the form of our encounter with art in the digitized world. Even though there are some partial differences between the sites’ interfaces, there is in general always a basic catalog with an item filter and the only output is a site displaying the specific artifact with its additional info (and an occasional “download” button for public domain works) This form could perhaps (at least sometimes) help professionals who know exactly what to look for but it is completely unsuitable for the general public.
In short, online artwork presentations as done by Czech museums won’t make a big impression. They are not trying to arouse interest for art among the greater public and lack ideas or functions enhancing the experience from physical exhibitions or even attracting new visitors to galleries. They don’t tell stories, stimulate curiosity, share emotions. In short, working with them is roughly as uplifting as leafing through a phone book. It’s remarkable that cultural institutions with such a rich experience in publishing, organizing exhibitions and preparing educational courses, children’s classes, workshops, tours and entertainment programmes for the visitors of their buildings are unable to create something similar in the virtual environment. However, the tech giant from Silicon Valley has decided to rectify their failings.
The Google Cultural Institute, the Californian take on “a museum without walls”, currently contains roughly 6 million digitized works from over one thousand world institutions. The collection itself is not the final output but a starting point for many more tools and stories. Go to artsandculture.google.com and you will enter an environment inviting you to explore cultural history. It offers curated topics put together from various media forms, 360˚ Street View interactive tours or artwork pictures in high definition which can be zoomed in to the utmost detail and cracks in the craquelure and then zoomed out to reveal the whole picture. There are also panoramic videos and 3D models of architecture. You are invited to walk through the most intriguing exhibitions around the globe, to connect individual authors, works, styles, historical figures and historic events using a sophisticated interface or to create your own collections based on your imagination.
However, Google’s ambitions don’t end with this online production showcasing cultural artifacts as leading actors. Probably the most interesting outputs are to be found under the “experiments” tab which features three dozen experiments using current technologies to open new views on art. There are projects applying augmented or virtual reality, reconstructions of historical sites using photogrammetry and drones, automatically generated network analyses or schematic landscapes composed of digitized artworks and organized by machine vision. So it seems that Google engineers and designers are able to fill in the blanks to cover for the failures of fine arts institutions. Perhaps it won’t take long for their robots to scan the last sculpture, take a picture of the last painting, calculate the so-far-hidden relations and prepare the best presentation of cultural history. “A reason for joy,” one would like to say. “A cause for concern,” one must write.
„…to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” says the heading at about.google. The path to this goal leads through data collection from websites, your browser history, phone location, files you upload to cloud storage, emails you write. There is obviously no doubt that today’s biggest tech company has enough data about our present. And what about the data about our past? 2002 is often considered as the beginning of the digital age – it is estimated to be the moment in history when the amount of digital information exceeded the amount of data stored on traditional media, in books, magazines, on LPs, tapes, VHS tape cassettes, film, paper or even on pieces of wood or canvas. If Google really wanted to organize the World’s information, it necessarily had to address even these pre-digital forms of content. So in 2004 there emerged, among other things, the Google Books platform trying to digitize all printed publications and in 2011 the aforementioned Google Cultural Institute with the same aim for cultural artifacts.
In short, big cultural history data are not hidden in smart phones but in GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) collections. An overwhelming majority lies idle on dusty shelves waiting for prospectors who transform physical media into digital forms to mine them for useful information and new knowledge. Those who succeed first get a head start and a competitive advantage. In Platform Capitalism Nick Srnicek writes that in today’s post-industrial economy, the most important products are created through cultural content, knowledge, influence, attention or services instead of having a material substance. This business is in fact dominated by a new group of (usually monopolistic) companies that don’t own means of production but handle data and do it efficiently. The fact is that the more data the company collects, the more data applications it can implement, the more knowledge it can extract, the better services it can provide and, as a result, the bigger value it can generate for its users and shareholders.
Profits generated by a database of cultural artifacts are not necessarily evident at first sight. No tickets or gift shop souvenirs are sold on the Google Cultural Institute website, there are no connections to the art market and no ads – otherwise the tech company’s main source of revenue. Google doesn’t consider it necessary to receive revenues directly from a specific service it’s the value of the whole ecosystem that counts. What matters is its search window popping up in your head as the first option when looking for any kind of information. Despite the fact that only some topics and certain key words generate the company’s profit.
But the rules of any digital platform are defined by the owners who are not inclined to share their main resources. This also applies to the Google Cultural Institute that does not share its tools or its accumulated databases. If, for instance, you would like to use the database of millions of digitized works for your research, your art, cultural or business project, you are simply out of luck. Regardless of the fact, that most of the reproductions are formally owned by individual public institutions, the only entity that has access to the complete collection and can present, explore and use it at will as a whole is Google.
So what can museums do to secure a more equal access to the cultural heritage so that everyone without distinction can use it? Aside from consistent digitization of their works, they should focus on easy access and create open data. What exactly is that? According to Wikipedia, it stands for information and records published online: complete, easily accessible, machine readable, based on standards with freely accessible specifications, accessed under clearly defined conditions, used with minimum restrictions and available to users as low cost as possible.
The definition above means, among other things, that a simple publication of reproductions in a website user interface doesn’t in itself meet the requirements for open data even when further use of the material is possible under a license. Picture collections, which the visitor browses “work by work” and the overall content of which is not downloadable in an electronic form can’t be used in further computer processing. Those interested in doing so have to resort to (often lengthy) negotiations with the institution to make the database accessible or invest substantial effort into rebuilding the dataset from available sources. In both cases it’s a barrier that discourages from the use of digitized collections.
Unlike Czech institutions, some international art-collecting institutions are already consistently providing open data. Browsing through the websites of New York’s Cooper Hewitt, The Met or Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum we always find ready-made databases alongside tools, documents and connectors facilitating their use. Creating such portals is obviously a demanding task that only some museums are able to tackle (see the situation in the Czech scene). But there is a simpler path towards making the cultural heritage available for public use. It goes through umbrella organizations striving to create and connect open digitized collections via, for instance, the Europeana Collections project initiated by the European Union which now provides over 50 million diverse cultural artifacts (not only visual artworks) from European museum collections. Or through initiatives running under Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons or WikiArt also featuring extensive resources of digitized art for further use while their significant role in enabling access to cultural history should not be ignored.
Galleries, libraries, archives and museums as public institutions conserving the heritage of the whole society should strive for their treasures to be integrated in public or open platforms to become a democratically accessed resource instead of a private competitive advantage. They should create conditions for everyone to be able to handle their data and use it to create new content and knowledge. But first of all, these institutions should fully realize that in 2020 physical cultural artifacts locked inside repositories are roughly of the same benefit as the pages of Pijoán’s encyclopedia. Both hopelessly unavailable and inaccessible, whether in a climate-controlled storage room or on a distant shelf three meters above ground.
Lukáš Pilka is a designer, art critic and theorist focusing on interactive and communication design, technologies, new media and these fields’ overlap with the world of fine arts. In his PhD research at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague he studies the use of neural networks for the quantitative interpretation of classical artworks.
English translation: Anna Žilková
This essay was originally published by Artalk.cz in Czech and was translated with the financial support from the Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague.
 Naturally, given the vast set of data, we might presume that it includes works from across all the continents and that it may even be a representative sample of the world cultural heritage. But a look at the map of included collections reveals that European and North American museums represent an overwhelming majority among all the institutions involved and, by contrast, just a little over ten African collections were documented and made accessible. As far as the Czech Republic is concerned, 18 organizations have made part of their collections accessible through the Google Cultural Institute, as of the publication date of this article.
 We must make difference between raw data and knowledge. Data can include knowledge but it’s not a prerequisite. Just as it can be complicated to extract knowledge from data.
 Out of Europeana’s overall 50 million digital reproductions, less than 35,000, or roughly 0.07%, are from Czech institutions.