Google Arts and Culture opens doors to a new world of cultural education

| Senior Forum Editor

Sometimes when I walk around campus, my heart starts pounding because I think I see someone from my high school. Don’t get me wrong, my high school experience was a lot like other students’: very “meh.” It’s not like I have some sort of dark secret past or anything—I just would rather avoid the awkward “how is your life going” kind of conversation meant to occur at our 10-year reunion. Chances are (considering only one other person from my high school has even gone to Washington University) the passerby is just a look-alike.

There’s an old myth that everyone on earth has as many as seven doppelgangers. But with 7 billion people on earth, it’s unlikely you’ll ever come face-to-face with your replica. Luckily, Google’s newest app—Google Arts and Culture—finds it for you, but with a catch: These doppelgangers live in a museum.

Through the app, a user takes a selfie that is then compared to artwork collections in museums worldwide, using artificial intelligence and facial recognition software, with the top matches displayed in order of similarity between the face and the artwork. The algorithm searches more than 6,000 exhibitions across 1,500 museums in more than 70 countries.

Google Arts and Culture was originally created two years ago, but it shot to the top of the download charts in the past week or so. While originally only available in the U.S., users across the globe can now access its features.

Separate from its obvious shareability on social media, the Arts and Culture app represents a years-long effort to digitize and catalogue famous works of art, thereby increasing their accessibility worldwide, through digital “street view” walkthroughs of famous galleries and in-depth collections of articles about different “themes” (like the castles of Loire Valley in France and black history and culture). And it’s not just limited to the arts: Walkthroughs in the “Virtual Explorer” section offer behind-the-scenes looks at Natural History Museum exhibits and complete tours of World Heritage Sites.

Something as simple as a high-definition scan of a work by Van Gogh allows users to experience art in a new way. Even those fortunate enough to visit museums don’t get to really explore a work of art with such depth, and the app encourages viewers to want to learn more. Besides, curiosity and the desire to learn have never been more important than they are in 2018. In the ever-changing political climate, budget cuts to programs seen as “extra” in the American education system (like arts and cultural education programs) seem like an inevitable outcome. Some have even argued that America is undergoing a cultural revolution akin to Mao Zedong’s in 20th century China.

While Google Arts and Culture is still a work in progress—the selfie feature has been criticized for its lack of inclusivity for people of color and its limited access across the globe—the future of cultural education lies in the hands of innovative projects like this one. Algorithms are only as good as the datasets from which they draw, so further studying and curating works by minority artists could help solve some of the app’s prejudicial qualities. But this can only happen if cultural education—starting at a young age—is preserved. Allowing the app to transcend national and cultural boundaries presents an invaluable opportunity to confront the biases that exist in the curation of museum exhibits and the creation of new technology—and it represents an ideal that should be propagated: A successful project should be celebrated for its achievements, but its shortfalls must also be recognized and improved upon.

With this newfound cultural appreciation in mind, consider taking a trip to the Saint Louis Art Museum or even just down to the Kemper Art Museum. Remaining active, even just as a free-of-charge patron of the arts, can help sustain a thriving community with a shared belief that recognizes the importance of cultural education.

Technology is one of the great equalizers of our generation—and if all it takes is a selfie to draw someone in, so be it. Seeing yourself replicated at a point throughout history is interesting and makes you want to learn more—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just don’t forget to explore the other features while you’re there, too.