Six days ago, Google unleashed its newest virtual data-sharing juggernaut: the infinitely alluring, excellently designed and overall beautiful Art Project. It’s awesome. Seriously, if you haven’t checked it out yet, do so immediately.

Art Project offers anyone with an Internet connection access to select galleries and artworks in 17 of the world’s most prolific museums. Using Street View technology (familiar to the über-creepers who frequent Google Maps for not purely direction-seeking purposes), the Art Project allows art lovers and novices alike to stroll through such institutions as the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the National Gallery and Tate Modern in London.

But that’s not all. The paintings are presented in a super gigapixel technology that allows users to zoom into a minute magnification and see such fine detail as thick golden paint blobs on Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and cracks in Rembrandt’s canvasses. It’s the kind of view that, until now, only conservators and the actual artist have been privileged enough to see.

While there has been some moderately controversial buzz surrounding the ownership implications of Google’s latest baby — for example, once a piece of artwork no longer technically belongs to an artist and is released to the public domain, who really “owns” it? — the main question on my mind is, how will this awe-inspiring innovation impact the museum world?

From the inception of the museum concept in the world of the ancient Greeks to the most contemporary institutions like the Heidelberg Project, museums have been dealing with an ongoing debate: Should they emulate a “temple” aesthetic, creating a space for individuals to come and stand in awe of great works and inspiring artifacts, or should they be a more accessible “forum” for constituents of every conceivable background to come together and exchange ideas? To date, most museums aim to reach a compromise between both goals. And most do a good job with the balancing act.

Art Project definitely embodies the philosophy behind the forum sector of museology. People can create individual art collections — sign in with your Google account, zoom in on your favorite painting and save snippet views of an artwork (or the entire piece) into your collection. According to an informational video, this part of the project is intended to jumpstart discussion and allow users to share what they discover with their various social networks. This is the ultimate application of the forum mindset: Not only do individuals get to interact directly with art, they also are able to manipulate it. Art is no longer something dissected only by snooty art historians we all find insufferable (love you, Mom). It’s a layman’s conversation point. And, as a budding museologist, I believe that’s exactly as it should be.

Furthermore, I think Art Project will inspire more people to travel to more museums. Yes — in a museum, you can’t see the artwork in super hi-def or tour a building from the comfort of a desk chair, but there’s another piece of museum lore that works in conjunction with the Art Project to make increased museum attendance a very probable outcome. It’s called the “aura of the original.”

Walter Benjamin, the intellectual who devised this theory, posited that an object’s aura is the often-intangible aspects that are “left over” after duplication. For example, authorship, history and sensorial experiences are not transferred from original to copy. With Art Project, I can’t stand before a canvas personally primed and painted by Van Gogh. I can’t get Starry Night’s sense of “oldness” through the instant and constantly updating Internet. The masterpiece is over 120 years old, but on a computer screen, the paint could have dried ten minutes ago. And I can’t smell the indescribable Van Gogh-y scent of Starry Night. Art Project can offer me a lot, but it can’t offer everything. That’s where museums come in: They provide the originals. And the aura produced by the originals is why these works are valued and revered — and why they’re held in museums in the first place. Art Project emphasizes the differences between original artworks and duplications, and makes the authentic pieces even more special and prized by society.

Right now, Art Project can only expand. More museums will hopefully get on board and more galleries and paintings will hopefully be added. If an individual can’t make it to a foreign museum, I can’t imagine a better way to experience art than through Google’s new project. And, consequently, I wouldn’t be surprised if Art Project turns many people into active museum visitors. The museum nerd that I am, I can’t wait to see how museums further utilize this tool in the future. It’s going to be a great era of virtual opportunity.

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