New ways of seeing

Across the world, museums, libraries and galleries are embracing cutting-edge technology to lend stunning new digital avatars to their holdings. But what does that do to the art and rare book objects?


A file photograph of a digital imaging technician at the US Library of Congress. Photo: AFP
A file photograph of a digital imaging technician at the US Library of Congress. Photo: AFP

A few engineers from the Google Cultural Institute’s laboratory—The Lab—in Paris had rigged up a robot inside the city’s Palais Garnier. The Palais is perhaps the most historic opera house in the world. Opened to the public in 1875, it’s the setting for Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom Of The Opera. It is a building that stuns on the inside and out. And not always for the right reasons. Some see it as a high point in the architecture of the Second Empire, the regime of Napoleon III. Others, like Le Corbusier, saw in it a symbol of tasteless excess.

The engineers from Google were there to photograph the most recent addition to the Palais Garnier’s encrustations of art. In 1960, the artist Marc Chagall had been asked to paint a new ceiling for the opera house—it was unveiled four years later. Chagall’s ceiling, a depiction of works by 14 major composers of opera, was captured with a high-resolution camera attached to a Google robot. Thus suspended 18m over the ground, the robot began to sweep over the 220 sq. m of the painting.

Later, the engineers invited Chagall’s son, David McNeil, to visit The Lab in Paris and view the painting in high resolution on The Lab’s video wall. In a 2015 article, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Nick Miller described what happened when Laurent Gaveau, The Lab’s director, showed McNeil the scans.

“...he was zooming in and panning around something most people only ever see from afar, if at all.

And then, ‘Oh, that’s me,’ he said. The artist had included, in a little corner of the painting, a portrait of Chagall, his wife and his son. He never knew he was there,” Gaveau said. “He was very moved.”

Today, Chagall’s ceiling, and thousands of other artworks, can all be seen in ultra high-resolution on the Google Cultural Institute’s voluminous online portal in unprecedented detail. Consider the ceiling of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. With just a few clicks, you can zoom into the cathedral ceiling until you can distinguish each individual tessera that makes up the mosaics.

The folio from a ‘Rasamanjari’ series at the Met. Photo: Courtesy The Met
The folio from a ‘Rasamanjari’ series at the Met. Photo: Courtesy The Met

Across the world, museums, galleries and libraries are embracing cutting-edge technologies to capture their collections in sophisticated, interactive, high-resolution formats. And in many cases, these digital images are being shared freely with the connected world.

Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York announced that it was releasing around 375,000 images of its public domain works into the Creative Commons, thus allowing anybody to download and remix these works as much as they like. While not the first museum to do this—the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for instance, has had works in the Creative Commons since 2013—the Met’s online release is the largest so far.

In London, the British Library has digitized hundreds of thousands of images of manuscripts, books, maps and recordings of music and video.

In India, too, museums have started to not only collaborate with enterprises like Google, but also work with local experts on digitization projects. In January 2016, the Union government announced that after digitizing just under 16,000 objects in 2D, the National Museum in Delhi was now embarking on a 3D pilot project. Policy initiatives have also been announced to extend digitization projects to many of the country’s other major museums.

"Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that it was releasing around 375,000 images of its public domain works into the Creative Commons"-

But what is the point of it all? Is this just a matter of scanning and putting art on the Web? Or is there more to this contagious global obsession with digitizing arts and heritage? To understand this better,we need to look at another institution that treats rare books and manuscripts not just as texts but, increasingly, as works of art.

Tom Derrick, a digital curator with the British Library in London who is currently working on a project titled “Two Centuries Of Indian Print”, recently spoke to me about the project and about what he termed the “digital humanities”.

The British Library has perhaps the largest collection of early printed books in South Asian languages anywhere in the world. And many of these are quite possibly the only copies of these publications left anywhere in the world.

The incentive to scan them into digital files, then, is quite obvious. Not only does it give these rare book objects an unlimited second life, it also makes it easier for researchers all over the world to access them remotely.

Derrick’s “Two Centuries” project—which involves digitizing 4,000 early printed books in Bengali, amounting to around 800,000 pages—is a pilot project that also seeks to figure out ways of using various technologies to make these books more useful to researchers, especially in “digital humanities”.

But what exactly is digital humanities?

The field, explains Derrick, exists at the intersection of computer science, arts and humanities research, and involves applying computational tools such as Big Data Analytics to tease out new insight from large quantities of digitized documents. Use these techniques well, Derrick says, and studies that would have taken several years can be done in just minutes.

Derrick gives the example of researcher Katrina Navickas, who studies the history of the Chartist movement of 19th century Britain. The Chartists, campaigning for universal adult male suffrage, were widely believed to have focused their campaign in London’s poorer working communities. Navickas used digitized versions of 19th century newspapers and a combination of various techniques—large-scale text mining, optical character recognition (OCR), natural language processing (NLP), Python programming and geo-coding—to extract information from thousands of notices on Chartist meetings. When these results were plotted on a map, the distribution was surprising. The Chartists, in fact, had held meetings in rich and poor areas all over London. This called for a dramatic reassessment of Chartist appeal across London society.

If all this makes it sound like the digital humanities are a walk in the park, with a laptop tucked under the arm, then think again. With the “Two Centuries” project, for example, one major challenge is developing high-quality optical character recognition software that can read Bengali. The British Library is currently working closely with a number of Indian institutions, including the School of Cultural Texts and Records of Jadavpur University and the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru, on this.

Derrick hopes that over time, projects such as “Two Centuries” will create tools and techniques for researchers to work on the wide variety of collections available in the British Library and elsewhere in numerous South Asian languages. The project is expected to be completed by 2018. But Derrick already has a couple of Bengali texts he is particularly fond of. “The first is Byanjan Ratnakar, an 1865 cookbook prepared for the maharaja of Burdwan. It is adapted from the Persian book written by the chief cook of emperor Shahjahan.” With its recipes for breads, desserts and biryani, says Derrick, he was immediately drawn to it. The second book, from 1854, is Directions For A Railway Traveller.

A page from ‘Directions for a Railway Traveller’;
A page from ‘Directions for a Railway Traveller’;

What does digitization mean for art itself? There is little doubt that projects such as the Google Cultural Institute, unveiled in 2011, have democratized art and culture. Yet it also raises questions about the cultural value not just of what we consume but of how we consume it. Museums themselves, it must be kept in mind, were built as cultural compromises. Places where people could see projects in a state of displacement from their natural habitat, if you will. In one sense, digitization isolates these objects even further. It strips them of a sense of context, scale, shape, size, even atmosphere.

Isn’t peering at the Mona Lisa over the heads of tourists and their iPads a crucial element in understanding what the Mona Lisa is in the 21st century?

Even here, however, digitization may be providing some solutions. Google, the brand that has become ubiquitous in the world of digitization, now allows consumers to enjoy many of these sights and sounds in virtual reality via headsets that you can order online and assemble at home. The effect ranges from the unsettling to the immersive. And is, in almost every way, an improvement on seeing flat images on a computer screen. The Palace of Versailles is a particularly enjoyable example of this. Look around carefully inside the Hall of Mirrors, however, and you may just be able to spot someone standing in front of a tall contraption in one of the mirrors. That is one of the devices that Google uses to capture environments on to the virtual reality platform.

In a few years from now, art lovers will live in a world which offers a new way of seeing art and culture. They will be able to see every hair on David’s head and every petal on a Van Gogh sunflower. And with one click of a button they will be able to create their own VR museums full of…whatever they want. Only paintings of sunflowers? Only sculptures of chickens? Only covers of Bengali books?

It will all be possible. It will be unusual. And it will forever change what art and culture mean.

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