Google Open Gallery

The Invite

Last May, following the request I made in December 2013, I received an invitation from Google Cultural Institute to join Google Open Gallery. I’m glad finally to have had the opportunity to more fully investigate what it can do and how it works in the course of a critical evaluation and formal review of its use as a Digital Humanities tool . While assessing how appropriate it might prove to be to my own immediate research project and longer-term artistic goals, I also became aware of a host of questions and issues related to the contemporary reframing of the figure of the artist as a ‘creative entrepreneur’: e.g., the criteria used to assess the ‘eligibility’ of users for a service, like Open Gallery, that one must request an invite for; the evolving role of ‘gatekeeping’ and curatorial practices in the discourse of the ‘democratisation of culture’; and the relationship of freely hosted ‘cultural content’ to the corporate philosophy/branding strategies of a company like Google.

The Sell

Currently, there is no review of Open Gallery on DiRT Digital Research Directory, however Open Gallery features on Alan Lui’s list of Digital Humanities Tools under the category of Exhibition/Collection. The brief synopsis Lui provides is culled from the Open Gallery homepage :

  • Powerful free tools for artists, museums, archives and galleries
  • Easily upload images, videos and audio to create online exhibitions and tell your stories
  • Enhance your existing website, or create a brand new one for free
  • Very powerful zoom for your beautiful images

Help visitors discover your content using search and filtering options
The platform’s goals and methods are clearly set out, although the language, while descriptive, has the promotional tone of a commercial world (powerful tools for your beautiful content) aimed at the proconsumerables market! For all that, Google Cultural Institute has legally non-commercial status and it’s projects and platforms are free to use and free of advertising content. The strong emphasis on images would suggest Open Gallery was designed to enable artists or photographers to showcase their work online; in effect, aimed at the kind of people most likely to have existing portfolio websites (or to be thinking they’ll need one). The suggestion is also made that museums and archives might also want to make use of Open Gallery, presumably those institutions wanting an online exhibition platform but without the means to avail of commercial collections management systems with conservation and loan tracking features.

If the message is Open Gallery is simple to set up, easy to use and, above all, free, then it does what it says on the screen. Google Art Project, the first endeavour of the Cultural Institute, adapted and repurposed existing tools and technology developed by Google, in an effort to ‘democratise’ culture by enabling online access to the collections of major art museums. The project integrated and showcases Google resources- Picasa, Street View, Google Maps, YouTube, and Google Scholar. The same tools and technology and the distinctive template and layout of Google Art Project have been extended to artists or anybody wishing to create online exhibitions or collections of ‘cultural content’.

The key feature, in my opinion is the zoom function, which uses Google’s image viewer (and Picasa software) to work with extremely high resolution images, and can be embedded in an existing website, like wordpress for example. The simplest option is to create a standalone website on the Open Gallery domain, e.g. aodhanrilke.culturalspot.org. No technical expertise required. While not strictly necessary, it is also possible to use one’s own hosting service for the custom URL, and as a backup just-in-case! In that case, deployment is a straightforward four stage process. Alternatively, one can simply link though from the header menu bar from one site to the other.

The Look

The clean, streamlined aesthetic of a Open Gallery website is the equivalent of the white cube of the modernist art gallery. On the homepage the browser window is dominated by a single image, ‘featured item’, against grey, black and white background, against which one’s featured image shines. Presentation is sophisticated but codified. As Alanna Bayer writes

The Google Art Project website has almost been replicated in its form and then opened up to the general public. The name “Open Gallery” immediately connotes a relation to the open source movement. However, while Google might make some of its tools available through Open Gallery, this is done only with a restricted template users can upload content to. There is no freeing of source codes, or opportunities for users to creatively alter the template’s underlying data structures.

Bayer’s critique is part of a larger analysis of the concept of virtual museums. Her concern is how symbolic capital accrues to Google through the prestige of their cultural initiatives and, skeptical of the claim to be empowering producers of ‘cultural content’, she concludes ‘both projects claim an “open-ness” that is not necessarily realised’.

Leaving aside questions of the online power relations between artist and institutions, the strong institutional investment in and support of the platform is a good indicator of the sustainability of the tool, (which is essentially an extension of Google Art Project’s ‘Create an Artwork Collection’ feature) but there are no guarantees. The full weight of the Google products and services also aids discoverability (more on that below!). While in closed Beta version (available since December 2013), the interface has the functionalities and stability of the ‘mature’ mother version, Google Art Project (online since February 2011).

Set up

…just upload images, add video, Street View imagery and text, interweaving your story among the images to create an exhibition that will truly engage your visitors

I imagine uploading high resolution images to be the attraction of Open Gallery, and captions and other textual descriptions can be added to images and the site further ‘enriched’ by multimedia ‘mashups’ (albeit with limited supported media files and sizes). By using the ‘drag and drop’ principle to place individual items into panels and sections one can ‘curate’ exhibits and, similarly, compare-and-contrast items with the ‘Compare’ feature. I particularly appreciated how the search mechanism on the ‘Collections’ page allows scalable views but, as Kate Lomax observes, ‘[besides] the ability to upload and organise the files, there’s very little by way of specialised features that enable galleries and archives to create narratives from their digital content.’

Most importantly for the research goals of any digital humanities project is the issue of metadata. The ‘Suggested Tags’ in the item editor are Title, Date Created, Creator, Description, but one can manually add or select from a range additional field to Dublin Core standards or other metadata schema. Advanced users can create a metadata template using Google Sheets and upload metadata from CSV or XML files or via the command line with the gsutil tool.

Quid pro quo?

My key concern as an artist would be asserting intellectual ownership over my own work. To meet that, Open Gallery gives the option to disable (or restrict) embedding of items in one’s collection, however close reading of the terms of service shows that by allowing content to be discoverable, the user agrees to give Google

a non-exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works… [and]… communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content .

Final Analysis

Organising collections as online exhibits is useful for a ‘thematic research collection’, however it is an open question just how applicable Open Gallery would be for research projects with complex digital collections. In itself, it is not the kind of online resource that serves as a self-contained research environment, like the William Blake Archive, for example, which, as Kenneth Price points out, can ‘provide the virtues of both a facsimile and a critical or documentary edition simultaneously.’ Precisely because of that, some of the questions important to a formal review of a digitial humanities (such as export of data and results, the sustainability of research and whether or not the tool allows one’s research’s results to be verifiable and reproducible) are not applicable.

Summary

  • Zoom feature for high resolution images to be embedded in websites.
  • Hosted website for online exhibitions of uploaded images, text video and sound.
  • Metadata management for digitised items.
  • Clear interface allows for searches and comparisons.
  • Free to use but one must apply for an invitation.

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