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Google history

Marc v. Lüpke / bkNovember 27, 2012

It looks surprisingly good: Google is putting history in the home with its new multimedia "Google Cultural Institute." Will it bring history to more people, or is Google just conquering another aspect of our culture?

Screenshot of Google Cultural Institute site
Image: Google

In 2004, the search engine Google made it. That was when the verb "to google" first entered the official German dictionary, and so became part of the German language. Since then, of course, Google has developed into much more than a search engine.

What few people know is that Google is now also a digital "museum." The company has co-curated 60 history exhibitions, and is planning more. The official explanation is that Google wants to make a name for itself in the cultural world, so it is making its technology available to museums and other institutitons.

The basis for all this is the Google Cultural Institute, founded in 2010, and which organizes these exhibitions. Both the design and content are impressive. But what would move an Internet giant like Google to support history exhibitions? The company's product manager Mark Yoshitake says that Google simply wants to help promote culture online.

Screenshot Google Cultural Institute
The Google Cultural Institute covers the entire 20th centuryImage: Google

Stories in the net

Google's history exhibitions now virtually cover the entire globe: from the Spanish Civil War and the Normandy landings of World War II, to the abolition of apartheid in South Africa and the fall of the Berlin Wall. They cover history from the beginning of the 20th century to the present.

There are also plenty of dark chapters: the Holocaust is a major part of the exhibitions. "A lot of the material is deeply moving - and some has not been seen on the Internet before," wrote Yoshitake in the official Google Product Blog. Pictures, documents, and videos from several institutions and museums worldwide have been made available, including exhibits from the state museums in Berlin, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Yad Vashem Center for Holocaust Research in Jerusalem.

The effect is overpowering, and it is developing into a page where one can spend a great deal of time. Simply browsing through the large pool of pictures takes the visitor from one interesting image to another. The written documents, such as the diaries, also make compelling reading.

The structure and design of the virtual exhibitions can give the visitor the impression that they are inside a museum, or even at a historic site. The user can move through in time, can enlarge pictures, listen to witnesses, and read many, many pages of information.

Yad Vashem 01.04.2005 (c) Kaniewski, DW Wikipedia-Beschreibung: Yad Vashem (gelegentlich auch in der Schreibweise Jad Waschem oder Yad Washem), offiziell: „Gedenkstätte der Märtyrer und Helden des Staates Israel im Holocaust“, ist die bedeutendste Gedenkstätte, die an die nationalsozialistische Judenvernichtung erinnert und sie wissenschaftlich dokumentiert. Sie liegt in Jerusalem und wurde am 19. August 1953[1] durch einen Beschluss der Knesset als eine staatliche Behörde gegründet. Yad Vashem wird jährlich von über zwei Millionen Menschen besucht.
Google also has exhibits from the Yad Vashem CenterImage: DW/D.Kaniewski

Though the menu offers 20 different languages, the exhibition texts are generally in English. The homepage also comes complete with a search function that allows the user to trace keywords through the exhibitions.

A threat to museums?

Users can do all this from the comfort of their own home, as the saying goes, which raises the important question: will a visit to a virtual exhibition one day replace a museum visit in the "analog world"?

As far as Google is concerned, the answer is 'yes'; in fact, this is what the company is aiming to do. "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," is how the firm describes its own purpose. Everyone should be allowed to use the Internet to trace the history that interests them - preferably using Google technology. Altruism is possibly not the only motive.

The museums themselves seem pleased. "Everyone can profit from it," said Ronald Leopold of the Anne Frank House. His colleague Obenewa Amponsah of the Steve Biko Foundation also believes that the Google Cultural Institute is "making material available that wouldn't be accessible otherwise."

Not everyone has the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and Yad Vashem and the many other history museums. For their part, the museums expect that Google will make people curious to see more and lead them to their doors. For, as thorough as the exhibitions on the Google Cultural Institute are, they are no substitute for seeing the exhibits first hand.