Museums may be starting to open up again in Milwaukee, but there’s another way to experience the city’s rich cultural scene: the newly launched Google Arts & Culture page devoted to all things Milwaukee.
Google Arts & Culture is an initiative to make global cultural institutions available to the public through digitization. Within that framework, it highlights specific cultural hubs worldwide, and Milwaukee is only the second U.S. city to get this featured treatment.
“It’s a virtual cultural tour of the city. It’s pretty exploratory. I’d say it’s pretty interactive,” says Claire Koenig, communications manager at Visit Milwaukee. “It’s not just any one type of medium either. The images, videos and mapping features really let you engage with the content as opposed to, ‘Here’s a story about Milwaukee,’ or, ‘Here’s a gallery of images about Milwaukee.’ It’s just way beyond that.”
On a quick scroll through the Milwaukee page, you’ll see interviews with local creatives, deep dives into the city’s history, guides to Milwaukee’s culinary scene and so, so much more.
“We’ve been working on this for at least a year,” says Koenig. “Google reached out to us and then a number of local arts organizations to basically say, ‘Here’s the project. Do you want to be involved?’ Of course we said yes. Because it is a fantastic opportunity to just bring more eyeballs to what Milwaukee is and what it’s all about and all that we have to offer in a cultural sense, which can really surprise people who are not familiar with the city at all.”
Indeed, to someone from out of town, Milwaukee might seem like an odd choice to be recognized for its arts and culture. But that’s precisely why it was picked, says Simon Delacroix, U.S. lead for Google Arts & Culture. To capture American culture, the initiative is “looking at cities that are maybe not as well known as the biggest cities in the U.S., and yet really full of culture with very vibrant diverse cultures from food, the people, the sports, the different crafts and industries — we’re trying to tell a city’s cultural DNA through online stories,” he says.
Portraying a city’s entire cultural landscape is a huge undertaking, of course, so Google Arts & Culture partnered with 16 local organizations to convey as much as it could. These partners include Visit Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Art Museum, 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Sculpture Milwaukee and several others, showcasing a wide variety of cultural disciplines. One partner, the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University, was lucky enough to receive a visit from one of Google Arts & Culture’s most innovative technologies: the Art Camera.
The Art Camera, explains Delacroix, is a camera attached to a robotic arm that takes hundreds of thousands of extreme close-up photos of a single work of art. The photos are then digitally stitched together to create an incredibly high-resolution image, which visitors to the Google Arts & Culture website can view zoomed in, up close and personal. “The end result is really stunning because you actually have access to details that would be otherwise invisible to the naked eye because you can see the brushstrokes in detail. You can see some cracks in the painting as it aged or details that would really be hard to detect even in the museum,” says Delacroix.
Over 50 of the Haggerty’s works of art were captured by the Art Camera. Three received even more attention, being featured in detailed walkthroughs with supporting historical information, like this exploration of “Portrait of Three Children as Ceres, Ganymede, and Diana” by Dutch painter Nicolaes Maes. These “exhibits,” as the website refers to them, are particularly educational, says Susan Longhenry, director and chief curator of the Haggerty. “Very often, people go into museums but they don’t know how to look. There’s studies that show people sometimes spend more time reading a label than they do looking at a work of art. And these three exhibits in particular slow you down and have you do a deep focus on a single work of art that is facilitated by this incredibly high-resolution image, along with information supporting that,” she says. You can view all of the Haggerty’s digitized collection and work with Google here.
The digitization Google Arts & Culture did for the Haggerty became especially valuable once the pandemic set in and the museum closed its doors mid-March. The digital archive is currently the only way the Haggerty can connect with its community, but it allows viewers to get a new perspective on the museum’s collection, says Longhenry. “The Haggerty has about 7,000 works of art. Even when the museum is open, obviously there are not 7,000 works of art on view, so this really pulls back the curtain on the museum and its collection in a way that’s even more powerful right now,” she says. “The door is closed, but the curtain is open.”
Delacroix says that Google Arts & Culture has seen increased use across all its pages since lockdown began. “It’s a very nice complement to the museum experience. It does not replace it, because it doesn’t provoke the same emotions to see the artwork for real in the museum. But it’s a great tool to educate yourself and prepare for a visit,” he says. “In times where it’s safer to stay at home, it’s been great to be working with partners to see how we could give them a tool to reach audiences globally. And I think that’s really been the case with this Milwaukee project.”
The Milwaukee page isn’t complete, either — Google Arts & Culture is always looking to add more arts organizations as partners to expand its coverage. “We’re happy to see the good response from the first launch, and we can’t wait to be launching new collections soon on the Milwaukee page,” says Delacroix.
Delacroix says he’s grateful to have gotten to know Milwaukee through his work on the project. “I hope people in Milwaukee will really be proud to maybe discover or rediscover stories of their own city or institutions that are around them. Sometimes it’s the things that are closest to you that you know the least because you haven’t taken the time to fully understand them,” he says. “I hope Milwaukee people will be really proud of their amazing culture.”