Digitising culture and art

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019 08:01 |

As Internet penetration rate grows, it was only a matter of time before arts and culture went digital. Google is at the forefront of this ambitious  bid as AMIT SOOD, the director of its Cultural Institute and Art Project explains to HARRIET JAMES 

Briefly describe your work and what the Google Arts and Culture project is all about. 

I work on a global nonprofit initiative at Google called Google Arts and Culture, which began in 2011 to make culture accessible to everyone digitally. The idea was for people to get all types of cultural information. It’s seeing the world through the eyes of culture, and we want to work with museums, archives and learning institutions to bring their information in a magical and unique way. 

What inspired you to partner with Kenyan museums in their digitisation process?

When we first began the Kenyan project, we started with archives and later on the Murumbi collection, where we worked withWe Wear Culture in 2017, (a project showcasing garments and clothes from various parts of the world).

We did the Nelson Mandela Archives in South Africa and other small projects about fashion and heritage sites. We did another project in Nigeria on food, but we’ve never done something about people; so this is an amazing opportunity for us. We have never focused extensively in a country like we have done today and Kenya is our first African market where we have done a big focus project on communities. It’s been about two years working on the Utamaduni Wetu Project (promotion of Kenyan cultural heritage through stories of 28 communities)  from concept to completion. 

What challenges have you faced in your vision of digitising culture, particularly in Africa?

The major challenge is that we try to replicate the physical experience of going to a museum. Although we want more people to go to the museums, we have realised not all of them are interested to go because they think its elitist to do so. And so for us the focus is really to convince people to broaden their wings and to make everyone to be interested in culture. 

How do you handle the sensitisation process of your product?

On the digitisation front, we provide all the resources, funding and the tools. Let’s say there’s an archive collection which seeks to digitise their material, but they don’t have the knowledge to do so. Our job is to offer the technical part with our technical teams for art; we have a special art camera, which goes around museums capturing the finest details of artwork from their collection and helps in digitisation; for archives, we have a table top scanner and for the heritage sites, we use our street map technology. 

How does Google Art And Culture partner with other Google products to attain its goal?

Our job is to bring all the different Google technologies together for culture. We had to build our art camera because it was for art, but we use technology from across the Google network. So if someone has videos, we will work with YouTube as they have an amazing digitisation team. We are technology agnostic. For us, it’s about helping the content owner on culture and their stories. 

How would you, as Google Arts and Culture, measure your success?

The first measure of success is how much are we preserving? How much are we changing the ideal of what is culture? We measure our success in the long term not negating that we would like to have more users. Currently, our app has 20 million users and we are highly rated on Apple IOS and Android, but this does not measure as success. Success for us is how many partners we have assisted in bringing their content online. Its in the digitisation, it’s in how much info is coming online, because I cannot force someone to read about culture. It’s not a utility like you are checking the email or going to Google maps and finding direction. So it’s not so much about how many people are using it, but more about is it available, is it preserved because you never know when you might want it. Humans, sadly, have a tendency to only focus on culture when it’s gone. For instance, we’ll think about a church when it’s burning or when a museum is looted, only when bad things happen to culture do we care. So my job is to ensure that if that bad things happen, there is already information that is preserved. 

How do you handle challenges of intellectual property (IP) with regards to works such as paintings and art work?

We are very clear in our system. We don’t own any of the content. The museums and the partners own the content. When it comes to the IP and the copyright, we don’t take it, but we are very clear for instance, if tomorrow morning, the national museum wants to remove their content from our platform, they have a button, which they can press and it’s removed. 

Whats the one thing you love about your job?

I love the diversity and the fact that everyday I am learning something new. I tell my team they are students. It’s like getting a PhD in culture, but not from a school, more from experiences such as interacting with people and travelling. It’s just a different kind of job, where you help the locals tell the world what makes them proud to be that nationality. 

Parting shot... 

While everyone wants to go to the cool culture, as the Internet has become more about trends, it’s very important to find a way of connecting the trends from the past with contemporary culture. Because if we forget  all the historical work that has been done, we are going to suffer. Only the Internet will help us bridge the gap. 

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