2 February 2018




Okay, maybe you won't find true love on Google Arts and Culture, but its new feature that matches users' selfies with museum artworks makes for as entertaining a Valentine's Day evening as any real-world date. Currently rated #2 in Entertainment by the App Store, the mobile app (which has been around for over a year) has suddenly experienced a massive surge in popularity due to the recent addition of the portrait-matching software.

The results are sometimes uncanny, while other times somewhat less successful - case in point, some matches for our very own Musings writer, Kelly Manikoth:

While in either case the app succeeds at engaging users, it has also garnered a fair bit of critique levelled at a number of troubling issues. Of course, whenever we're talking about using our devices to send images or information to companies, privacy concerns are paramount. Google reassures us that they won't use our selfies "for any other purpose, and will only store your photo for the time it takes to search for matches", which you can choose to believe or not believe. While I may purport to be the tech savvy millennial that I am, if you're asking me whether I've willingly sent my likeness to one of the largest multinational corporations in the world, the answer is of course I did:

Those eyebrows are spot on, right?
While I have mixed feelings about contributing to Google's AI crowdsourcing project, I was actually impressed with my results. As a person of colour, I had reasonably low expectations. Many of us, regardless of our cultural and ethnic background, find it difficult to see ourselves in the beautiful (and often idealized) portraits hanging in museums and galleries. For POC, this is particularly the case - white and European faces make up the large majority of these portraits, and diversity and representation within art institutions can come at the cost of disturbing images of colonial gaze and the fetishization of non-European cultures. 

This is certainly represented by the app, as many users have critiqued the noticeably smaller pool of images of non-European portraits, and how a large proportion of these images perpetuate harmful stereotypes of racial identities. While my above result seemed at first like a great match, I noticed later that many East Asian women who had posted their selfies online had also gotten the same painting - a coincidence perhaps, but one I have noticed repeatedly among POC users. Rather than dismiss the app as racist, it seems more pertinent to reflect on how these results speak to a much larger, and insidious problem within museums and cultural institutions

However, taking a cue from Kathleen's article earlier this week, I'd like to sign off on a positive note and enjoy a few more results from the Musings team!

Sadie MacDonald (Exhibition Reviews)
Kristen McLaughlin (Musings Abroad)
Julia Zungri (Exhibition Reviews)
Serena Ypelaar (Editor-in-Chief; Museum Mysteries, Walk of Fame)
Amy Intrator (Administrator; Beyond Tradition)

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