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Digital museums offer us new adventures
By Li Anlan

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TECHNOLOGY allows us to visit the world’s great museums without ever leaving home and see artworks in more intricate detail.

With online virtual tours, there are no queues to buy tickets, no crowds at the most popular artworks and no rush to beat closing times. The great world of art is available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The concept of museums online originated in the 1990s, before artful website designs and fast bandwidth made virtual exhibitions more exciting.

The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, England, went online in 1995. It was the first to offer exhibitions with detailed content and high-resolution images.

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The museum now provides 360-degree views of exhibition rooms and multimedia content like audio guides, flip books and podcasts.

For example, the “Geek is Good” exhibition at the museum last year has an online version (http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/geekisgood/) that takes users from the home computing of the 1980s back to medieval astronomical instruments.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington is one of the most popular museums in the world, largely because of its dinosaur fossils and systematic portrayal of evolution.

Its self-guided virtual tour (http://www.mnh.si.edu/vtp/1-desktop/) is accessible on both desktop and mobile devices. There are “hotspot” arrows guiding users room by room.

One advantage the virtual tour provides is access to past exhibitions, like the 2008 orchid exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History which you can access from the menu on the upper right.

Zoom in, zoom out. On virtual tours you can enjoy panoramas of the inside of museums or see close-up details of artworks that you might miss standing before them in person.

In 2011, the Google Art Project was initiated to help connect museums with art shows and users who want to see it. The non-profit online platform now works with more than 700 museums and galleries in 60 countries. It is now exploring the growing new market in Asia.

Last month, the Hubei Provincial Museum, Huaren Contemporary Museum, Long Museum, Museum of Ethnic Culture at Minzu University and Suzhou Museum joined the Google Art Project, bringing to 15 the number of Chinese institutions offering digital content to viewers.

“Interest in joining the platform has to come from the museums,” said Amit Sood, director of the Google Cultural Institute and founder of the Google Art Project. “We are available to discuss it with them and address any questions or concerns they have.”

The museums decide what works they want to upload. The copyrights of the works remain with the museums.

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“Before we started working together, we browsed the content of others on the Google Art Project and decided what we wanted to share online,” said Zhang Ming of the Hubei Provincial Museum. “Then we selected artworks to represent the culture of the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, especially the ancient Chu state.”

Like the “Chimes of Zeng Hou Yi,” a set of museum bells made of alloy of tin, lead and bronze in a “closed-tile shape” that helps to reduce vibration. The set was unearthed with all bells in their original place — the heaviest percussion instrument ever unearthed.

The Google project’s gigapixel format allows the captures of images in super-high resolution. Users are able to view the works in microscopic detail and explore things like the brushstrokes by Vincent Van Gogh.

Take the example of “The Harvesters,” a 1565 oil-on-wood painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, currently hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. By zooming in, one can clearly see the bird perched on the tree branch, farm workers taking a break on the newly harvested field and ships in the distance — details you might miss in a museum unless you were holding a magnifying glass close to the painting.

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The Google project also curates digital exhibitions, provides virtual tours of the museums and presents hard-to-reach heritage sites. One example is the Giza Necropolis, the archaeological site on the Giza Plateau on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. The page offers a street view of the site as well as historical documents related to the site.

Digital museums allow online users the opportunity to share favorite paintings or collections with friends.

“It’s up to the museums to decide the level of engagement with the users,” Sood said. “We just provide the platform.”

Mobile apps are a new area for the project, he said. The project has just launched the first five mobile applications in Asia, all from Korean institutions. Thirty more are under development, using Google Art Project technology.

Some museums are exploring online opportunities on their own.

The Palace Museum in Beijing offers a virtual tour on its official website, with pictures and detailed descriptions of the history of the Forbidden City. Among the artworks are the Prunus Vase with sky-clearing-red glaze from the Kangxi Reign (1662-1722) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It’s a simple upload, with no fancy plug-ins or high resolution pictures. That’s the most common way Chinese museums are building their own online galleries.

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The virtual exhibitions on the Palace Museum website are in the same format. Its several mobile applications, on the other hand, are beautifully designed with user friendly interface.

The first app, the Daily Palace Museum, with English and simplified Chinese versions, highlights one piece of the collection every day and comes with background stories. Users can also take notes and sync between devices when logged in.

The app is available free for iOS and Android. It already has hundreds of thousands of active users.

The Palace Museum Ceramic Hall iOS app, launched this year, presents all 429 ceramic works from the permanent exhibition of Wenhua Dian in chronological order, with high resolutions pictures and 360-degree panoramas.

The Palace Museum also has apps for iPad that provide a new way of exploring art in details one cannot see when standing in the actual venue.

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