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Does your museum really want that Google Arts and Culture page?

A few days into the COVID-19 quarantine my family began sending articles about virtual museum tours on Google Arts and Culture (GAC). They wanted to make sure I knew about this amazing resource. At that point, I was nine months into my master’s thesis on the relationship between GAC and museums. Social distancing had brought new relevance to the almost decade-old platform.

As excited as I was for my thesis to be timely, I was also concerned about what the renewed attention would mean for museums. It seems inevitable countless museums will rush to become a GAC partner. A freeway to increase your online audience is attractive during a pandemic. However, the museum needs to seriously consider all aspects of the platform before jumping in the queue. There may be an unseen cost.

Google Arts and Culture is a non-profit, off-shoot of Google. Partnering with them is an exchange. GAC provides technology such as virtual reality as well as a way to reach new audiences. Cultural organizations in return give their intellectual authority, interpretation, and stories. Some in the museum field have expressed apprehension over this trade. They feel museums should not willingly lending their collections and authority to the affiliate of a tech giant.

Koven Smith is a consultant who works with museums on their digital strategy. In an article published by the American Alliance of Museum, Smith argues “from a values standpoint, the Google Art Project is a stunning giveaway of authority, expertise, and raw content to an organization whose end game for museum content remains an open question."[1] By surrendering collections to a conglomerate, museums are no longer defining the terms of their online collections, they are “inheriting them via terms of service.”[2] Ownership of collections images placed on the site remains “murky.”[3] Michael Church, Senior Archivist for Collections at the Kansas Historical Society, discussed at the Kansas Museums Association 2019 annual meeting how Google could be using the collection images to do things like train Google’s artificial intelligence systems.[4]

Joining Google Arts and Culture becomes a complex endeavor when museum staffs look beyond surface level. Organizations need to decide for themselves if what they get from becoming a GAC partner is worth what they are potentially giving up. After writing a thesis on the subject, my two cents museums should do everything they can to make sure their decision is an informed one. There is no right or wrong answer.

[1] Smith, Koven J. “Point of View Are We Giving Up Too Much?” Museum, vol. 98, no. 1, 2019, pp. 12–13., [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] Madden, Mary, and Michael Church. “Kansas Museum of History 2019 Conference.” Kansas Museum of History 2019 Conference. November 7, 2019.

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