Interview: James Davis, Programme Manager, Google Cultural Institute

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Creative England Live 2016: Catalyse’ aims to showcase the amazing things that happen when recognised enterprises engage with the small, innovative organisations of tomorrow.

With this in mind, we’ll be hearing from James Davis, Programme Manager of Google’s Cultural Institute as part of our flagship, fourth anniversary event at Google HQ. This innovative project combines culture and state-of-the-art technology and is keen to engage with big and small organisations to ensure unique voices are heard.

To find out more, we spoke to James (pictured right) about the thinking behind the project, what its future holds and how you can get involved…

Hi James, what can you tell us about the Google Cultural Institute?

The Google Cultural Institute is an online platform for cultural organisations to showcase their cultural artefacts. That might be art museums, historic archives, archaeological or heritage sites. In the platform, members of the public can access paintings, objects or archive material and also read stories about those artefacts curated by curators at those organisations, not by Google. This manifests on desktop, website, mobile platforms and various other iterations. It’s a large scale digital platform for culture.

Why did Google feel the need to create this type of service?

This began as a 20% project at Google where, as an employee, you can spend 20% of your time on a project you’re passionate about. About 5 years ago some colleagues of mine who were passionate about art and culture had this idea of bringing together some really cool new Google technologies into the world of museums and culture. Those technologies were very high-res photography, gigapixel photography, of artworks; and taking street view, which up to then had just been used on the roads externally, inside museums so that you could actually walk around. I worked for Tate at the time this was happening and so I worked with those at Google at the very beginning of the project. There were 17 museums when we launched in 2011 and now we have well over 900 different cultural organisations.

What kind of content can people find on there currently?

There’s well over six million individual artefacts, paintings and archive material and well over 900 cultural organisations from over 70 different countries. We take the platform very democratically so there are huge world famous museums and tiny little cultural institutions that you’ve never heard of and everyone gets the same set of tools and service. Our principle is that within these large and small organisations there are still hidden gems and stories to tell.

Do you have any personal favourites?

One highlight for me is a project that we just launched about the performing arts. This takes some of the world’s leading organisations like the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK, Berlin Philharmonic, Paris Opera House, Carnegie Hall and around 60 other performing arts organisations and enables those stories to be told. For some of them we’ve deployed 360 video, so you can literally step on stage and look around in all directions whilst a performance is taking place. This is something really special and quite unique – you get a perspective that audiences don’t normally get.

How does the project engage with creativity?

We’re continually innovating and trying to find new ways to bring technology and the world of creativity and culture together. To that end we have a lab in Paris that allows us to explore what it really means to bring technology and culture together. What happens when the physical meets the digital? In the lab we have an artist-in-residence programme where we curate people from all over the world and they have direct access to our engineers so we’re bringing creative and technical people together to spark ideas and see what comes out of that.

What are your ultimate goals for the Google Cultural Institute?

We’re continuing to grow. We know that we want to have partners in more countries; we’re in almost 70 countries at the moment so there’s about 100 countries left in the world where we don’t have any partnership so we need to grow that way. The performing arts was a good example of us growing dramatically last year. We began with just visual arts and then we expanded into history and then archaeological, heritage and so on. Each of these cultural disciplines have their own stories to tell so there are many more cultural disciplines that we could enter.

What does 2016 hold for the Google Cultural Institute?

It’s really about growth but it’s also about growing responsibly and continuing to deploy innovation in order to create new, engaging experiences for people. One of our goals is to help increase the audience for culture online. Museums and cultural organisations do a fantastic job with attracting visitors and that’s wonderful – at Google, we have the great privilege of having an enormous mainstream audience. Not all of them are beginning their digital journey looking for culture or creativity but we have a fantastic opportunity to present culture and creativity to that mainstream audience. We can show them art and culture and history and if they enjoy it, it could begin a personal journey. It starts online and might end up with a physical visit to the museum in their town or city so there are different types of growth that we want to explore. New partners, new countries, new themes, cultural arenas and new audiences too.

How can partners get involved?

We work in two ways at Google – we reach out to some partners and we also love hearing from partners who are interested in working with us. So on the Google Cultural Institute website there is a link at the bottom of the page where you can get in touch with us and we’d love to hear from partners directly, either through social media or directly through the website.

Find out more about Google’s Cultural Institute here.

Find out more about ‘Creative England Live 2016: Catalyse’ by visiting our hub page and using the hashtag #CELive2016 to join the conversation on Twitter.

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