Gaining greater clarity into Australia’s cultural image

With the aim of creating an accessible online collection of art and other cultural archives worldwide, the Google Cultural Institute is already well established across the globe. Earlier this year, in March, the initiative gained momentum as 14 leading Australian museums and cultural organisations joined the Institute, an important step in the digitisation of arts and culture in Australia.

The Institute already includes the likes of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and London’s Tate Modern, and now the National Museum of Australia, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and the National Portrait Gallery, among others, are starting to digitise their collections. These organisations recognised the opportunity for Australian collections to be preserved as part of the greater global cultural community. So far more than 2000 items, ranging from artworks to cultural and historical artifacts, have been digitised and made available on the web as high-resolution imagery.

Maile Carnegie, Managing Director of Google Australia and New Zealand, says the Cultural Institute’s technology and reach will help showcase Australian culture and history to a wider audience. “Students in rural and remote Australia will be able to see and study these items for the very first time. This partnership also makes it possible for billions of people around the world to learn more about Australian art and history. By putting more artworks and artifacts online, we hope to help digitally preserve them and enable people to enjoy them for generations to come.

For the museums and organisations involved, this digitisation of their content enables them to display the rich visual history of Australia. Works in the collection range from high-resolution imagery of Aboriginal bark paintings that allow users to zoom in to see the surface detail, to viewing the delicate drawings and illustrations of the settlement of the First Fleet, or objects that illustrate the wealth-seeking scramble of the Gold Rush. Digitising valuable artifacts such as these, which are usually kept in storage, allows these to now be on constant display, able to be accessed not only here in Australia, but from anywhere worldwide.

Coinciding with the Centenary of World War I, the Australian War Memorial has worked with the Google Cultural Institute to create detailed “StreetView” panoramas inside the Lancaster bomber known as G for George.
This online virtual tour provides a perspective that even on-site visitors to the War Memorial wouldn’t physically be able to appreciate from outside the historic warplane.

“As we continue to commemorate the Centenary of World War I, the Australian War Memorial’s mission is to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society. We’ve used the unique capabilities of the Google Cultural Institute platform to display our collection in a manner which is not possible through our existing online channels,” says Project Manager Jordie Mckay.

Works that have defined Gallipoli, such as George Lambert’s iconic war artwork Anzac the Landing (1915) are now available as high-resolution images. Using guided zoom technology, viewers can explore fine details of the work that a low-resolution image cannot offer. Seeing works in such detail, greater than can be achieved in real life by the natural eye, brings out the compelling story of each work.

For Australian cultural organisations the Google Cultural Institute extends their reach to overseas audiences, providing them with a greater depth of experience. For example, both the Biennale of Sydney and Sculpture by the Sea have created a StreetView tour, which offers a three-dimensional experience of their exhibitions available at the click of a button. The digital 360-degree panoramic imagery enables one to appreciate the installations within either the cavernous walls of the Cockatoo Island 2014 venue for the Biennale, or the three-dimensionality of the sculptures arrayed along the coastline from Bondi to Bronte.

While the digital is no replacement to the lived experience, StreetView is a platform for Australian organisations to promote, as well as document their annual exhibitions. By continuing to increase the range and volume of material from the cultural world held in the Cultural Institute’s archives, the collective aim is to democratise access to it, and preserve it for future generations. With collections no longer solely stored between a museum’s walls, digitisation offers another avenue of preservation – immune to the environmental threats of dust and light.

The increasing digitisation of culture and communication has changed the nature and role of cultural organisations, and how they function. Accessing an entire collection from the seat of one’s laptop opens up greater avenues of communication among different individuals, led by a common interest.

This union with the Google Cultural Institute places Australian culture on a grand platform for cross-cultural conversations internationally. Offering a new stage for Australian culture, the digital shift integrates our local history into the grander global story, interacting with the forces and influences that continue to shape it. Preserved within this global context, this is an exciting new chapter for Australian culture; the potential is there for those to access it.

Google Cultural Institute

Images courtesy the Google Cultural Institute

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