Google’s Cultural Institute: Serious And Valuable, But Not A Lot Of Fun

The world has just gotten a cool new free virtual museum, the one that Google built.  

Aptly named Google’s Cultural Institute, the Internet-based multimedia site showcases first-hand testimonials, photographs, artifacts and manuscripts that until last Wednesday, you had to take a plane trip or at least pay an admission fee to see.

A Museum Milestone

Museum of Polish History called the Cultural Institute “a real revolution." Avner Shalev of Yad Vashem - also a Cultural Institute partner - said of the project, “it might be seen as one of the major milestones in modern history.”  Not only is Google’s Cultural Institute providing public access to documents otherwise previously unavailable for mass consumption, the project is “taking away the notion of physical custody of archival material” noted Razia Saleh of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in a mini-doc about the project.Building on the success of Google’s Art Project launched in February of 2011 in conjunction with now over 150 museums, Google partnered with 17 additional foundations and museums to launch 42 free digital exhibits as part of the Cultural Institute.

Not A Light-Hearted Experience

The 42 exhibits are a solid foundation and focus on World War II, the Holocaust and South African politics. Light-hearted or uplighting fare is few and far between. Google’s Mark Yoshitake has acknowledged the project will expand in the future though.

The exhibits themselves are displayed on a horizontal timeline, with navigation predominantly left and right arrows on both sides of the screen (you scroll across as opposed to scrolling down). This orientation makes sense when thinking about how exhibits are displayed in the real world, and Google has done a good job with its darker color scheme in keeping the site beautiful but solemn.

My Personal Thoughts

Eager to experience this revolutionary and game-changing web project, I spent a couple of hours perusing the site’s offerings. It wasn’t a life-altering experience, but I could immediately see its usefulness, especially if I was researching a moment in history covered by one of the digital exhibits. 

Personal items that you would only see in a museum were also included in the exhibits, including photographs of Frank’s infamous diary in the Anne Frank exhibit, and pictures of locks of hair in the Tragic Love at Auschwitz exhibit. These items were diligently added by curators trying to create in-depth stories about their subjects - and I certainly appreciated them. But I couldn’t help but feel their impact on me was cheapened when viewed through the Internet as opposed to me seeing it in person.

In a good museum, getting lost can be half the fun. Google’s Cultural Institute isn’t built yet for this type of free-form exploration, though I was able to achieve a bit of that same sense of discovery by browsing through the photo collections of LIFE and Getty Images, a search that was surprisingly clunky for a Google product. While browsing, I found this 1985 photo of former Libyan leader Gaddafi and a whole section of photos about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. As a refugee from a former Soviet Union-occupied country, I was disappointed by the lack of cohesive exhibits about the USSR (or Hungary), but the vast photo collections might one day be organized like the previously mentioned 42 exhibits. (Some additional treats I found: this photo of a gay couple walking by graffiti on the Berlin wall, Boris Yeltsin making a fist while a portrait of Lenin looks on, and an anti-NATO communist propaganda poster from 1981.)

Would I visit the Cultural Institute again? Definitely. But it in no way replaced the experience of an actual museum. If anything, it made me appreciate my local (and physical) institutions a bit more.