Armchair travellers have it good. At the touch of a mouse, you can zoom into the swirls in Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, listen to a tarana by the legendary singer Gangubai Hangal, get a peek into the life and times of yoga guru BKS Iyengar through photographs, or pore over archival photographs that document the fall of the Berlin Wall.
A virtual museum of sorts, The Google Cultural Institute , has sections such as the Art Project, Historic Moments and World Wonders. It recently partnered with 800 institutions around the globe to exhibit 1,80,000 artworks and six million photos, videos, manuscripts and documents of art, culture and history. Museums it has partnered with include the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, Tate Modern in London and the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad. And from the city, you can view the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research’s (TIFR) art collection, street art by the St+art Foundation and exhibits on Parsi culture from the Parzor Foundation.
When we met Google Cultural Institute’s director Amit Sood, he was just back from announcing the latest initiatives to promote Indian art and culture in Delhi. Sood, who grew up in Mumbai and did an MBA from Sydenham College, presently shuttles between London and Paris.
How is the Google Cultural Institute different from the much talked about Google Art Project?
In 2010, a group of individuals in different countries started working on different projects around culture. I started working on the Google Art Project, another colleague on a project on history, and someone else on the wonders of the world. Rather than doing these as 20 per cent projects (a policy where employees can take a day a week to work on side projects), we suggested a dedicated team of engineers for it. The Cultural Institute formed in 2011, a few months after the Google Art Project (a pilot project) was launched; they came together in that year itself.
What is the focus for the Cultural Institute?
We work only with non-profit institutions. Our goal is to build technologies that help these institutions reach newer audiences and reconnect people with art and culture. Going forward, along with art, we will focus on crafts, music, intangible culture and heritage. Indian classical music will be a huge part of it.
What are the technological innovations you have devised?
We want to remove the burden of IT cost and investment from museums. We recently launched four mobile applications built for free that are branded as apps of the museum. It’s an online tool that museums can use to tell stories by dragging objects and media, and comes without Google branding.
The other big innovation is on the hardware side. Firstly we built a specific street view camera called the Trolley; it’s going all over the world, giving virtual tours of museums to people. The second innovation we did is the Art Camera. It is a custom hardware rig being built to enable extreme zoom.
Which are the new institutions you are partnering with, in Mumbai?
We have been working with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which has a phenomenal collection. Then, there is the The St+art India Foundation. Street art was a big project for us because street art, by its very nature, is temporary. From the preservation angle, this aspect of culture is probably the most important to capture. We have also partnered with the Parzor Foundation. I am half-Parsi and it was fascinating how much I learnt in the exhibitions it did about Parsi personalities and their contribution to Indian culture. The Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum is in conversation with us right now and we are in talks with many other institutes. In the next 10 to 12 months, we will hopefully have more partners.
How has The Cultural Institute grown over time?
Most people working in the team (around 25 people) are ex-museum people or technologists who wanted to work on art and culture. Because of them, we were able to scale so fast. We have ambitious targets. We started with 17 museums in 2011. As of last week, we crossed 860 museums, foundations and archives in 61 countries.
In the past couple of years, the majority of growth has come from Asia. We now have 26 cultural institutions as partners in India (they started with just two). Another market that has grown significantly is China.
What you must check out
* Nelson Mandela — One Man's Memory : Check out the view from the front of the Maximum Security Prison on Robben Island, South Africa.
* Haenyeo : Jeju-do, the largest island in southernmost Korea, has all-women divers (Haenyeo) who dive without equipment and catch sea creatures.
* Hiroshima : Showcases the damage caused by the atom bombing during World War II.
* Vanishing World of Parsis : Sooni Taraporevala's images depict Parsis, Parsi cafes, and the changes in the community over the years.
(The writer tweets as @SomaRKDas )