Not everyone can visit Sicily’s Valley of the Temples, home to some of the world’s oldest examples of classic Greek architecture. Nor can they view the soft colors of Claude Monet’s “Tiger Lilies” in person at Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art. Despite being made for the masses, art and culture are often inaccessible. Google’s Cultural Institute wants to change that. In the past five years, the initiative has teamed up with more than 1,100 institutions to bring artwork, artifacts, and 360-degree museum tours online. This week, in an update to its Arts & Culture app, the company turns your phone into a powerful portal for accessing and experiencing that art.

The app (for Android and iOS) officially launched last year, but the newest iteration comes with two key additions: Google Cardboard tours for 2o locations (including the Valley of the Temples), and a new tool called Art Recognizer that turns your museum visit into a multimedia experience.

The VR tours let you explore locations by clicking forward and backwards along a predetermined route, while an audio track narrates what you’re looking at. It’s more engaging than the 360-degree browser tours Google has created in the past, but the Cardboard experience still leaves you yearning to visit the location in real life.“There’s no such thing as a replacement of an in-person visit,” says Luisella Mazza, head of operations at the Cultural Institute.

For those IRL visits, you’ll want to use Art Recognizer, an experimental new feature that helps visitors learn more about the art they’re looking at while wandering through a museum. Recognizer—which is currently in beta at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC—works by pointing your phone’s camera at a piece of art. Google’s software recognizes the work and surfaces related information—audio, video, background on the artist, etc—on your phone.

Its intelligent, on-demand functionality makes Art Recognizer the latest entrant in a new crop of low-friction museum apps designed to do away with keypads—an interface that has dominated audio tours for more than half a century. Mazza says the major distinction between Art Recognizer and other audio tours is that it doesn’t require visitors to follow a prescribed path through the museum. “It’s hopefully less linear, and more instant,” she says.

Google hopes these new features will help all museumgoers (virtual or otherwise) draw connections between the vast repository of artistic, cultural, and historic artifacts dispersed throughout the world’s museums. Mazza points to Van Gogh’s masterpiece “The Bedroom,” an early draft of which the artist once included in a letter to his brother. Why would you separate this letter from the final painting? You wouldn’t, Mazza says. “One is history, and one is art. But really it’s part of the same cultural experience.” Google already highlights these connections to an extent. For example, clicking on Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” will hyperlink you to the letter, which is handy enough. But just imagine, at some point in the future, if alongside the text and pictures of the artwork, you could use cardboard to explore Arles, France, the city in Provence where Van Gogh’s yellow house once stood. You might not be standing in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, but we have to admit, this doesn’t sound like terrible alternative.




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