Digital for arts and culture during the pandemic recovery


Digital & Data Governance

Picture of Amit Sood
Amit Sood

Director of Google Arts & Culture

Photo of This article is a part of our EYL40 Working Group on Arts and Culture series.
This article is a part of our EYL40 Working Group on Arts and Culture series.

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Show more information on This article is a part of our EYL40 Working Group on Arts and Culture series.

The European Young Leaders (EYL40) Working Group on Arts and Culture was established to share and brainstorm ideas for collaborating on pan-European projects related to arts and culture. It draws on the wide range of artists, musicians, writers and cultural practitioners in our EYL40 network.

Brexit, the rise of populism and the pandemic have threatened a sense of ‘European-ness’ among the citizens of Europe. The Working Group places a particular importance on how arts and culture – a core European industry contributing to 4.4% of European GDP – can be used as tools to help build that spirit while relaunching economies. The EU’s motto is: united in diversity. Our job will be to promote that diversity while responding to common challenges.

This series of articles complements the Working Group’s three meetings this year. The Working Group will produce a policy briefing to be launched in November 2021 and to be brought to the attention of high-level policymakers at the European and national level. Recommendations will also be handled over to EYLs, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel and French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Clément Beaune, ahead of France taking over the EU rotating presidency in 2021.

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10 years ago, a small group of art-lovers at Google wondered how we could turn our passion into a project. Empowered by the recent technological innovations in smartphones, cloud storage, ultra-high-resolution digital photography, and the synthesis between them, this small group felt compelled to approach museums eager to make their collections more accessible through digitisation.

Early partners, such as the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, asked us how we could help with their digital transformation in the long term. We started with 1,000 artefacts from 17 of the world’s most acclaimed art museums, and it’s grown ever since. In short, we supported cultural institutions who realised that they too can benefit from these brand new platforms by sharing their treasures with everyone.

Our partners told us that for most cultural institutions, the primary mission is education, which is easier to facilitate if they possess multiple ways of engaging with different audiences, especially younger demographics.

Cultural institutions worked hard to stay connected to their audiences virtually

The group’s art project grew into Google Arts & Culture, and today, millions of people from across the world have used the app to educate themselves about artworks, antiques and historical artefacts held by more than 2,000 museums, archives, world heritage sites and local communities. Users explore objects ranging from a 230,000 year-old figurine to a modern day particle collider, while utilising augmented reality to bring these artworks into their homes, schools and workplaces.

Along the way, the project has developed a strong European presence through its Google Arts & Culture Lab in Paris, which seeks to bring artists and creative technologists together while reflecting the continent’s rich cultural heritage. Europeans have discovered a wealth of art, both old and new, using Google Arts & Culture to immerse themselves in high-resolution images and machine learning experiments. Above all, we have been privileged to help institutions use modern technologies to build a deeper relationship with people.

Technologies have proven particularly vital this year because the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work and play. It has been a tremendously difficult time during which art and culture have been huge sources of support. Despite these difficulties, cultural institutions worked hard to stay connected to their audiences virtually. In enabling these connections, Google Arts & Culture was humbled to play a supporting role. This provided education and entertainment for those stuck at home, whether they learnt about Indian miniature paintings or travelled all over the world virtually, visiting archaeological sites, discovering new crafts and exploring amazing museums.

Let culture be the destination

As we have done over the past 10 years, we continued to support cultural organisations throughout the pandemic to tell their stories. We worked with the Croatian National Tourist Board to create Croatia: Hearts & Crafts, a virtual travel hub celebrating the country’s intangible cultural heritage. To keep events alive, we partnered with the Greek Ministry of Culture to create YouTube live broadcasts from the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, the birthplace of theatre. It was spine-tingling to see 2,400 years of history broadcast in 4K. We also worked with La Scala in Milan to celebrate the theatre’s past and present: 92 artists from five countries have come together to create La Scala’s first opera performed in quarantine. And in France, we were honoured to collaborate with Centre Pompidou to launch the first virtual exhibition about Kandinsky, which incorporated machine learning to highlight Kandinsky’s unique ability to see (and paint) sound through synaesthesia.

While working with our European partners, we realised these virtual experiences were a great way to raise awareness for natural and cultural treasures. Today’s situation is reminiscent of when we launched the initial idea of the art project in 2011; people argued it would stop in-person visits to museums. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. If one sees a beautiful image of something online, one wants to experience it in real life. Let culture be the destination. As vaccination programmes roll out and restrictions start to lift, culture is a key motivator for potential tourists planning a holiday. So, Google Arts & Culture will continue to expand its partnerships with European cultural organisations and iconic destinations as the world begins to (safely) travel again.

One of the things we are proudest of is that everyone can find something that resonates. This was made possible thanks to our partners’ outstanding curatorial expertise and the artefacts they share. I’ve been awed by their drive to innovate, connect with audiences and keep art alive as a beacon of hope. As life gradually returns to a new normal, I hope Europeans will be inspired by the art they’ve enjoyed during lockdown to go and see some new cultural treasures in person – and inspire our next decade.

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