A musuem that doesn't own any objects

As part of my master’s programme and I am taking an elective module in web development. It was during my undergraduate degree that I last made a website from scratch, and so it feels like a nice moment to do it again.

As part of the module we’re tasked with visiting a website each week and assessing it from a technical perspective. As my department is part of the Arts and Humanities faculty the focus is on public education websites, museums and archives in particular. We’ve visited the British Museum, The Old Bailey archive and this week we took a look at Google Arts and Culture.

As mentioned above, the sites we’ve visited hold in common a goal of wider public education about their chosen topic. This is probably true of Google Arts and Culture too, but given that Google is one of the largest companies in the world it demands a more detailed look at the question, “why was this website created?”

I have four thoughts on this matter.

First, by encouraging partner museums to cooperate with Google on this project they gain access to that institution’s data. Data is the lifeblood of Google’s various commercial enterprises. By digitising the museum’s collection, complete with high resolution images and associated metadata, they are able to improve Google’s internal knowledge graph and machine learning algorithms. Similarly, by creating detailed 3D maps of the museum’s physical space, they are able to improve the quality of Google’s commercial mapping product, Google Maps, in areas of significant real-world human traffic.

Second, by supporting cultural institutions Google maintains a long tradition of patronage of the arts by private companies. The reasons companies conduct this activity is varied, however one summary is that patronising the arts creates a type of soft power that private companies can leverage in the future. What is unique about this example of soft power accumulation is that it is carried out overtly. This is not a donation that leads to the creation of a museum wing or exhibition acknowledgement, it is a transparent attempt to associate many of the world’s finest examples of art under the Google brand.

Third, Google is able to able to use the project to experiment with new forms of technology that will drive commercial value down the line. Google Arts and Culture allows Google to perfect new techniques, such as indoor mapping and augmented reality vision, while simultaneously introducing these concepts to the website’s visitors and learning by tracking their behaviour.

I find my fourth observation most interesting however.

There is a trope from the world of tech startups that goes a little like this:

The world’s largest taxi company doesn’t own any cabs. The world’s largest hotel operator doesn’t own any buildings. And the world’s largest media company doesn’t employ any journalists.

This is a reference to the growth of platform businesses, companies who do not own much physical capital, and instead capture value by monopolising the digital space in which buyers and sellers of these services meet.

This strikes me as a good way to conceptualise why Google has created Arts and Culture. They aim to capture value for themselves by aggregating museum content and creating the dominant digital space in which it is consumed.

It may be a long time until Google Arts and Culture can join the likes of Uber, Airbnb and Facebook as “the world’s largest museum that doesn’t own any objects” but it is presumably a goal to which they aspire.

Daniel Bower

Blogging about platform regulation: algorithms, interoperability, kill zones as well as other bits and bobs. Read about my research, or read more about me.