In 1774, the British Museum—founded just 21 years earlier as the world’s first national public museum—had a problem, according to its then-director Matthew Maty. Too many of its 10,000 annual visitors were "persons of mean and low degree." Not only did Maty disapprove of "the lower kind of people" at the British Museum, but he complained that they also tended to be rude to the tour guides.
Imagine how horrified Maty would be if he knew that millions of visitors in 2015 can now stroll the storied galleries of his museum clad only in their skivvies, with a sloppy slice of pizza in one hand and a smartphone in the other.
That’s because the British Museum recently unveiled the results of its partnership with the Google Cultural Institute (GCI): the world’s largest Google Street View of an interior space, covering nine floors and 85 permanent galleries of the museum.
The virtual walk-through enables anyone in the world with an Internet connection to explore the roughly 80,000 artifacts on display (which is just 1% of the total collection of at least eight million objects) just as they’re presented in the museum, from the Lewis Chessmen and cat mummies to famously contested artifacts such as the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles. Visitors start in the yawning expanse of the museum’s Great Court, the largest public square in Europe, with early morning light filtering through the 3,312 glass roof panes. All of the images stitched together into the Street View were captured before and after museum visiting hours, and the galleries of the United Kingdom’s top tourist attraction appear surreally empty.
Fewer than 200 objects that are currently on display at the museum are not included in the Street View; these are primarily works of modern art under copyright elsewhere and ethnographic objects that could not be photographed for cultural reasons, according to Chris Michaels, head of digital media and publishing at the museum.
In addition to the Street View, the British Museum collection at the GCI features virtual exhibits, an experimental "microsite" that maps all of the collections along a single timeline, and high-resolution, zoomable images of more than 4,500 selected objects with descriptions.
The most impressive image is a super-high-resolution ("Gigapixel") image of the Admonitions Scroll, a fifth-to-seventh-century A.D. copy of an earlier work crafted by Gu Kaizhi, considered the father of classical Chinese figure painting. The silk scroll is more than 11 feet (3.4 meters) long and so fragile that it is only displayed to the public for a few weeks every year. Now digitized, it can be examined — as if with a magnifying glass — anytime and anywhere in the world.
A Seven-Acre Tour of 80,000 Objects
Since its inception in 2007, Google Street View has enabled virtual voyeurism of everything from the Grand Canyon to a Scottish car wreck. Google also integrates this technology into their Cultural Institute, (where it is alternatively called "Museum View") capturing spaces as varied as Carnegie Hall and Pompeii. But creating a Street View in a museum requires a particular twist.
"We had to turn off our face-blurring technology," explains Piotr Adamczyk, who headed up the collaboration as program manager for GCI’s content team. Apparently, the Street View algorithm that automatically blurs identities of passersby in public also inadvertently wipes out the visages of sculptures, paintings and masks.
Other than that, the process was fairly straightforward, with the seven-foot (2.1-meter)-high, two-foot (0.6-meter)-wide camera trolley walked through the galleries over the course of about five days. The GCI has performed complete or partial Street Views of more than 320 other museums and galleries — including India’s Heritage Transport Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — but nothing close to the scale of some 80,000 objects across seven acres (2.8 hectares) of floor space recorded in the British Museum. "The time it took to do the Street View capture is pretty much the amount of time it would take to walk through all of the galleries," notes Adamczyk.
Crowdsourcing and Minecrafting a 262-year-old Museum
The British Museum’s partnership with the GCI isn’t its only initiative in cyberspace. Its public database of more than 3.5 million objects has been continuously updated since 2007. Right now, virtual visitors can download objects from the collection to print on a 3D printer and even assist curators by crowdsourcing information on the museum’s Bronze Age sword collection.
According to Michaels, these cyber initiatives align nicely with the original mission of the 262-year-old museum. "The British Museum was founded on the principle to tell the story of the whole world to the people of the world," says Michaels. "We’re a museum built on sharing."
And much like Matthew Maty took issue with some elements of the British Museum’s public mission in 1774, sharing the museum with the world in 2015 has a few of its own obstacles. "Recreating the ceiling of the Great Court was tricky enough in Street View," explains Michaels. "But it’s really tricky in Minecraft."
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