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The Woman Who is Bringing Museums & Cultural Sites from All Over the World to your fingertips

ByTalenia Phua Gajardo, Yunyi Lau
The Woman Who is Bringing Museums & Cultural Sites from All Over the World to your fingertips

Ms Suhair Khan is the lead on the Google Arts & Culture projects and collaborations (Image courtesy of Ms Suhair Khan)

The Google Arts & Culture website and app is the latest development in Google's Cultural Institute project, which has an epic and noble goal of making important art and cultural materials accessible to everyone by preserving it for the future, online. The app makes searching through the History of Art a breeze, and allows you to browse through the archives of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC from the palm of your hand as you sit at your desk in Lisbon! Explore anything and everything from 'cats in art' to the craquelure in Van Gogh's 'Starry Night'. With their virtual reality function, you can also explore the streets of Rome and the street art and have experiment with their virtual reality viewer, Google Cardboard. All this, at your finger tips, anytime, anywhere.

A project as big, ambitious and cutting-edge as this, requires a woman like Ms Suhair Khan, who is extremely passionate about the arts and has spent the last six years of her life working at Google. We speak to her to find out more about some of the projects that have been close to her, why the Google Arts & Culture Project is so important, as well as what happens at The Lab at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris!


Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. How did you get to where you are today? What is your role within Google Arts & Culture?

I’m the lead on Google Arts & Culture  projects and collaborations in multiple countries, including the U.K, Australia, Indonesia and Korea. I work primarily from the London office with a great team, which is a naturally exciting space to be in - a great city with so much going on in the cultural space and so many creative minds.

I’m fortunate to work with a lot of great non-profit cultural institutions such as the the Natural History Museum and  British Fashion Council – to help share the beauty of their collections online. This is especially meaningful to me because I have a real passion for the importance and beauty of the arts and the diversity of human culture; and I get to experience this at work everyday. One of the projects I was proud to work on was launching the Google Arts & Culture in Pakistan. This was a wonderful passion project - bringing the historic Walled City of Lahore online via virtual tours and showcasing amazing online exhibits, imagery and drone captures of sites such as the breathtaking Baltit Fort in the mountainous northwest region and the Makli Necropolis in deepest Sindh.

A special edition of Google Cardboard was released for British Fashion Council
Image courtesy of Google Arts & Culture

How did the Google Arts & Culture come about and what is the mission of the Institute?

Google Arts & Culture came together as an idea from a group of Googlers as part of a 20% project (where Googler’s dedicate 20% of their time on projects that aren’t core to their role). They were passionate about art and started thinking about how we might use our technology to help museums make their art more accessible—not just to regular museum-goers or those fortunate to have great galleries on their doorsteps, but to a whole new set of people who might otherwise never get to see the real thing up close. And thus, Arts & Culture was born – from an idea to a fully fledged collaboration with over 1200 cultural institutions across 70 countries today.

The aim of the Google Arts & Culture is twofold. First, it provides access to art and culture to everyone, everywhere. Second, we are working with the cultural sector to help them share and preserve cultural content and create exciting cultural experiences with the help of technology online and in the museums. Launched in 2011, the aims of the Google Arts & Culture are in line with Google's broader mission to organise and make accessible the world's information.

The Google Arts & Culture App lets you sort artworks within a movement by colour!

What are some of the main challenges that you face in dealing with museums, institutions and historical sites?

Every country is different and so is every cultural institution we collaborate with. The challenges vary, and often it is around operating at different time-scales and sometimes simply with different languages! However, the most important thing is to ensure we are working at their pace, to their needs and ensuring we are helping make their visions a reality through technology.


What do you think is the most important feature of the Google Arts & Culture and what other features are you planning to roll out soon?

For me the global scope of the platform (over 70 countries) - is the most important feature. Being able to provide access to art and culture to a vast number of people across different cultures and nationalities. From a technology standpoint, there are many, one of them being the launch of a mobile app on iOS and Android last year - which has brought most of these experiences - including VR - to users’ pockets. Google as a company is focused on many aspects of Machine Learning. I love the experiments on Machine Learning we have done with our artists in residence at the Cultural Institute Lab in Paris. We will also be doing a lot more with Virtual and Augmented Reality with our cultural partners - so stay tuned!

A wealth of information from all over the world is available at your fingertips with the Google Arts & Culture site
Image courtesy of Google Arts & CUlture

What happens at The Lab in Paris and why is Art important to Google?

The Lab at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris is a physical place where tech and creative communities come together with Google engineers to share ideas and discover new ways to experience art and culture. We believe that it is through the collaboration with the cultural sector and artists in residence, that we can develop the best tools and technology for our partners. Our aim is to empower artists to create their art, collaborating with the facilities, tools and, technical and development support we provide.

The Google Cultural Institute seeks to learn about the relationship between artists and technology and get inspired by their creativity to drive innovation and push the boundaries of technology in culture. Art and Culture is important to Google because it is a critical part of the world’s shared history and social fabric. As a company that celebrates innovation and creativity, we see the arts as a natural extension of that vision.


How do you think corporations or other large tech companies could or should approach art, if they have never done so before?

There are so many ways. I think having a foundation which engages with the arts in whatever way is incredibly important. Whether it is supporting individual artists, giving grants to museums or providing in-kind technology support - all of it is important to building the cultural ecosystem (increasingly global, diverse and important) in which all large tech companies operate.


View cultural archives with the Google Arts & Culture App


Art and Technology are becoming more intertwined these days with the work that you're doing, along with other art-related online start-ups. In your opinion, what else could be done to enhance the online experience within the commercial space?

Our focus and collaboration is with non-profit institutions only so I am not best place to talk about what's going on in the commercial space.


Are there plans for the Google Arts & Culture to monetise and to also start working with the commercial art world? If not, why?

There are no plans for this - we are a not-for-profit entity, and we only work with only non-profit institutions. This is the best way for us to act as a platform and supporter for the arts and to unlock beautiful content from the world’s major cultural institutions. Our primary goal is to make this accessible to people all over the world in the richest possible digital format; and this is why we remain non-profit.


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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