Visiting the ROM from your house

Virtual tours allow art lovers to tour the gallery from the couch

If you haven’t gotten around to visiting the Royal Ontario Museum, the Google Art Project will allow you to do so without leaving your house.

In August, the ROM was added to the growing list of museums that have opened their doors to Google’s 360-degree “trolley camera”, allowing Google to create a virtual tour of the museum available online. Along with the virtual tours, high-resolution photos of more than 460 artifacts and paintings will be made available, according to a press release on the ROM’s website.

The idea for the project was conceived when Amit Sood, head of the Google Art Project, and a group of Google employees began looking for a way to help museums make their art more accessible with technology, Sood explained in a February 2011 blog post. He also mentioned that Google Art users have access to “more than 1,000 pieces of art”, and are able to virtually tour “more than 385 rooms within museums” from around the world.

Along with virtual museum tours, the Google Art site also offers several other features. Many pieces of art come with links you can click on to learn more about where the piece is from, when it was made, and what it depicts. This feature makes the Google Art Project a great educational tool. Users also have the ability to create their own galleries by saving certain pieces of art that they can then share via social media.

The one facet of the project I didn’t enjoy was the main reason most people would be drawn to the site: the virtual museum tour. But I should mention that I’m also not a big fan of Google street view, which shares all of its setbacks with the virtual museum tours. For an experience that is at least comparable to visiting a museum in person, you would need a lot of time and even more patience, since the site loads images very slowly and inconsistently, some areas of the screen developing faster than others.

Also, just like in street view, it’s very easy to get lost or disoriented, especially when you click one of the direction arrows many times in frustration and then end up far from where you wanted to be. However, the site does have a navigation bar where you can click on a painting to travel to its location in the museum.

That said, if you don’t normally have issues with street view, then you would probably enjoy the virtual tours.

A much better online alternative to view the ROM is to take one of the virtual gallery tours offered on the ROM’s own website. Each tour offers 360-degree views from five to 10 fixed spots on the showroom floor, giving you coverage of an entire collection. On the same computer and in the same browser I had used for the Google Art Project, the screen loaded instantly and showed great high-resolution images.

After trying out a few different virtual tour programs, I definitely don’t think they’re a replacement for going to a museum and seeing the art in person. The online version of the dinosaur exhibit in particular at the ROM didn’t come close to the feeling of being right in front of the huge brontosaurus skeleton that spans the entire gallery.

Since the ROM is free to all postsecondary students with a valid T-Card on Tuesdays, I would definitely recommend skipping the virtual tour and making the trip downtown.

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