Recently, I saw one of the greatest exhibitions of all time: all 36 of the extant paintings by Johannes Vermeers all gathered in one place — including the celebrated Girl with a Pearl Earring — in one exhibition. And all I had to do was download the Google Arts and Culture App onto my smart phone or tablet.
In cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Frick Collection, The National Gallery in Washington D.C., The Louvre, The Rijksmuseum and the Mauritius and a dozen other private collections and museums, digital scans of the works were gathered and assembled by Google into a virtual museum whose walls are filled with the Vermeer works organized thematically over seven rooms.
The way the app works you need to have a smartphone with a camera and be able to wave it over a flat surface. After choosing “Meet Vermeer” AR offering, and waving said device, the museum appears and you can work your way inside and go from room to room. This is neither as easy as satisfying as it sounds. It takes some getting used to and not to state the obvious but looking at the scan in the Augmented Reality Vermeer museum is not the same as looking at a painting in person. It carries none of the emotional or seductive power of the originals.
However, the app does afford the chance to see the works in context of each other, and there is some pleasure to be gained from that. Yes you could google them all, but this is much easier cooler and better images. Among the paintings is “The Concert” from the Gardner Museum (This is among the paintings stolen in 1990 and for which there is a multi-million dollar reward). And yes, the Girl with a Pearl Earring is there. She looks as mysterious as Scarlett Johannson (I would say more).
Also Google affords you the ability to zoom in on details of the paintings which is great if you happen to be writing an art history paper on the significance of certain details in Vermeer’s work.
Having downloaded the app, I decided to try out several of the other cultural VR or AR (Augmented Reality) offerings. The New York Times has a VR app whereby using a simple Google cardboard viewer (it’s sort of a stereo viewer that you slide your phone into) I was able to experience in 360 and mock 3D the CERN Hadron Collider (Cool), visited Machu Pichu (less successful of an experience — no real awe-inspiring sense of scale).
Going back to the Google Arts and Culture App, I visited “The Peacock Room” an amazing room J. M. Whistler painted for a patron Frederick Layton in London that is today housed at the Freer-Sackler Gallery that is part of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. In this case I was able to really view each detail of the room in close-up and have an experience that, while not the same as being there, introduced and educated me about an outstanding aesthetic installation and work of art, I would not otherwise have known about.
When Museums were built, the idea was that Art and Artifacts of our cultural heritage would no longer be the exclusive keepsake of the noble or monied classes for their private homes, but something the public could see in buildings and rooms that were, in a sense, theirs. Now, technology is attempting make accessible and bring into our own homes and private spaces that which is in Museums and places that not all can easily visit. Still imperfect, but a manifestation of the human desire to share Art and experience — from the earliest cave drawings to the modern CERN Hadron collider.
Tom Teicholz is an award-winning journalist based in Santa Monica, CA and co-host of “The Buried Lede: Beyond the Bylines,” a podcast about journalism