The Google Art Project’s “visitor guide” establishes the qualitative benefits of virtual exhibit tours with the promise of accessibility, interactivity, personalization, expanded knowledge, and unrestrained exploration: to “take a trip around the world’s greatest museums,” “discover the masters” and “hidden secrets,” which only a digital experience powered by Google could provide. Beyond rhetorically blurring the line between online and in-gallery art viewing, such an experience may actually be incrementally better, with over a 1,000 artworks at one’s technology-touching fingertips, seventeen “gigapixeled” paintings allowing visual inspection up to 1,000 times that of a digital camera, and Street View technology allowing for safe and unconstrained “travel” via clicking. As Google continues to render activities in the real world into digital form, it prompts the question whether physical space is becoming less relevant or irrelevant. Unconstrained by time or space or financial restrictions, this slice of the digital culture of convenience constitutes what has been termed the “post-tourist” condition, as individuals find it less necessary to leave home with the surrounding technologies that allow us to “gaze” on tourist sites in isolated comfort (Feifer 1985).
However, this electronic flânerie produces a disjointed and fantastical journey of a museum easily marred by digital distractions. We are encouraged to view fragments of paintings, brushstroke-level details impossible to see in person from behind designated viewing lines; we “fly” through corridors, jump floor levels and even museums, while additional clicks quickly take us “off-site” to Google-designated locations like YouTube and Google Maps. And while the virtual may draw the viewer into a spectacle, mimicking and transcending the everyday spaces of the temporal world, it does not negate the fact that Google is first and foremost an advertising company (Vaidhyanathan 2011). This virtual space may actually further the hermeneutic circle of tourist motivation, providing a basis for the future tourist to select and evaluate potential places to visit, while codifying their desire to travel (Urry 2002). Thus, the question is not the disjuncture or dissolving of actual and virtual space, but how this new overlay of sites and sights mutually reinforces and reshapes our experiences within today’s museums.