An inconspicuous giant?

On this blog, I am always on the lookout for tools and resources that can help gain exposure to Japan. This week I’m investigating the usefulness of ‘Google Arts and Culture’ for that purpose.

Google Arts and Culture is not a new service but has only gained traction in the last few years. Yet, for me discovering this was quite surprising; it’s a product designed by google — one of the biggest companies in the word — and until recently, I have never heard of it. Still, using the unfathomable amount of data, resources, and punch the company has at its disposal, it’s created a platform that promotes discovery, and knowledge of … arts and culture.

I’ll be looking at how Japan becomes more accessible through this platform and what can be found by using it; however, it can of course be used to explore any other culture as well. Shall we begin?

So what is it?

I think a brief look at what Google Arts and Culture is would be beneficial.

It’s a multifaceted learning resource that collaborates with a huge variety of other institutions such as museums, libraries, galleries and archives with the intention of pulling in their resources to be presented in a digital format.

Whatever subject or culture you choose to explore — Japanese or otherwise — content is sorted primarily into three areas:

  • Collections – This allows you to view exhibits and presentations by individual institutions and organisations. For example, I can choose to view everything that the Tokyo national museum has on display. Google has also built upon its street view technology to allow users to virtually walk around a gallery or museum.
  • Stories – These are online presentations pertaining to a specific subject; produced by either an organisation or google themselves and are often more in-depth and explanatory. This is the core method of discovery and learning and most are incredibly well put together and visually engaging.
  • Individual items – Here you can browse every item that has made its way onto the Arts and Culture platform; however can be sorted further by collection. Each item will include important details, but many will also be explained further.

Aside from these main features there are also curated ‘themes’ to help explore specific topics even further than stories. Augmented reality, and different daily activities to promote exploration are also features that only add to the service.

It’s worth noting that every item that has been uploaded has been photographed at an ultra-high resolution to capture the finest of details. As a guide there are numerous pieces that are a gigapixel or over. Not everything will be captured at this quality but may not be too far off either.

What about Japan?

I think it’s about time we got a bit more Japanese specific. What does Google Art and Culture bring to us? As an initial answer to that question, there is approximately 16,000 items presented directly from Japan that can be clicked on, viewed, analysed and digested. These include historical photos, prints, paintings, sculptures, ornaments, ceramics, idols, crafts, locations, people, clothing, and technology — to name some things I’ve encountered. Following this, there are tens of thousands more Japanese related items to be discovered from other parts of the world.

Ever wanted to explore the works inside Kobe City Museum or the Toyo National Museum? Well now you can. There is over 100 institutions and organisations in Japan that are partnered with the service, each bringing a portion of their exhibits online, some more than others.

Although there are Japanese exhibits across the world — owing to the number of objects that have been discovered and the amount of interest in Japanese culture — many unique items and those of great importance are only located in Japan. Pieces such as a 2500-year-old Jomon period clay figurine (The Tokyo National Museum) or illustrated handscrolls from the tale of Genji marked as a national treasure (The Tokugawa Art Museum) are just two examples.

You can choose to study surviving relics of the atomic bomb at the Hiroshima peace memorial museum or discover new Japanese artists at various galleries of modern art.

Whatever you choose to explore, find out more with translated explanations and zoom in to the see each item is exquisite detail. Get started with everything from japan.

104 collections 1
The number of organisations, presentations and individually viewable items, bestowed directly from Japan

Virtual experience and usefulness

Now, If you’re looking for a further experience, many of the partnered spaces located throughout Japan offer a virtual tour. Using this you can see the real exhibits in an almost natural way. Now it should go without saying that it can never be as good as seeing these things in person, but as a resource you can interact with 5000 miles away, it’s not a bad alternative.

This, I must admit, is a bit hit and miss in its usefulness though. It’s certainly a clever addition and allows the chance to look at more items on display than is shown elsewhere; however, unless you are looking at large pieces, you can’t always appreciate the significance. Smaller items become blurry on zoom and you can’t always position the camera in great viewing spot.

Galleries work quite well here though and luckily Japan has a lot of them. It is the size of the artwork and their often wall-mounted position that translates well on camera. My virtual trip round the Yamatane Museum of Art for example, was an enjoyable experience where I could appreciate the art without straining to look.

Despite there being a lot of work that can be admired, it’s impossible to understand what you’re seeing. Even if you are fluent in Japanese, the included explanation of the work is often illegible through a camera lens. Its usefulness as a learning resource is therefore almost non-existent.

The power of story

It’s the ‘story’ elements of Google Arts and Culture that provide some of the most insightful information and the most impact. These act in a similar fashion to a personal tour or guide. They can be found as stand-alone items or (again) as part of a collection that covers a whole range of finely curated topics; lots of variety but concise in their scope. There are hundreds of these for Japan and Japanese subjects alone; all are visually engaging, well supported with media, and all the information is backed up by official sources, making this a reliable fount of information.

As an example, the first one I encountered was entitled ‘This is why Beethoven is so popular in Japan’. Now personally this was news to me and so was intrigued. After 15 minutes of being presented with short but to the point explanations, photos, supportive artefacts and videos, I left having learnt something new. It wasn’t hugely in depth, but it was succinct in its delivery of vital information as well as being a fun experience; Its not going to replace other sources of information but will potentially get me interested in further reading.

They are very much a visual journey rather than a wall of text and I believe this is what the Arts and Culture platform tries to achieve overall. It is this distinction that cements stories as a great introductory source of information above others.

Its also these unusual and compelling titles that makes you want to find out more and explore what you can. This is what makes this service a great resource to use.

Conclusion: useful or not?

Whatever your thoughts and relationship with google, this service at the very least makes diverse arts and culture more accessible. It allows the discovery of numerous topics and close examination of innumerable objects, whilst being engaging and informative without overwhelming visitors.

As for being a resource to learn and discover about Japan; there’s definitely a lot to be taken onboard. It finds a fine balance that would appeal to newly interested parties, while offering interesting solutions and information to enthusiasts. There is the somewhat gimmicky virtual tour that, while a bit of fun, doesn’t offer anything substantial; almost everything else however provides some educational value.

The visual elements alone are enough to warrant looking at this resource; in truth, its what makes the service as compelling to use as it is. The wealth of bitesize information is the accompaniment along the way, but provides enough to grant a working understanding. It has also been the case that finding similar quality images and presentations about Japan has often proven difficult; that in itself is solid proof of how useful this resource could potentially become.

With all that in mind, I would conclude that this is a resource that is worth investigating, and one that I will certainly be continuing to explore and re-visit in the future.