Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Masterpieces of the Prado Museum with Google Earth

By: Paul D'Ambrosio, Vice President and Chief Curator
An exasperated technologist, speaking to a group of art museum professionals at a conference, once exclaimed, “when you speak about putting your images on the web, I can never tell whether you want them to look good or want them to look bad.” For more than a decade this has been a central contradiction of the approach to art on the web; we want to do the images justice, but don’t them to be so good that we inadvertently encourage piracy or leave people with the impression that a first-hand viewing is no longer necessary. The latter concern never made sense to me. Why would we print beautiful, full color images in books and magazines and not worry about the same reaction then? It has always occurred to me that the most reproduced works in the world (ie., the Mona Lisa, or, in the US, American Gothic) are also the most visited. Exposure creates artistic “celebrities” that draw hordes of admirers and create a retailer’s dream. Still, many art museums continue to have a schizophrenic approach to sharing their works electronically.
Now, a new partnership between Google Earth and El Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid has, I contend, laid this issue to rest. In a stunning new offering that speaks as many volumes about the emerging 3D web as it does about the virtues of public access to art, one can now “fly” through the Prado in Google Earth and access ultra-high resolution images of fourteen of the museum’s greatest masterpieces. You can view a promotional video of the project here:

No interpretive label could possibly express what one can now see in these works as one zooms in for a close up of Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition, for example, and examine the agony and the pathos with which the artist rendered every face. Even if you have seen these works in person, you have never seen them like this. And you will want to go back and view them with new eyes after this experience. Here’s hoping more museums jump on this bandwagon. We will all be the richer for it.

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