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Community / Public space

Google now lets you explore St Paul's Cathedral (and thousands of other cultural sites)

A few years ago, a friend of mine ran a series of computer classes for older people. Most were keen to learn basic skills like sending e-mail or searching Google, but one of the moost common requests surprised her. Again and again, students asked her how to use Google Street View. 

Most had heard reference to this feature, though had never used it, and it had taken hold of their imaginations. As a generation with far less access to cheap flights and travel than those born later, the idea that you could see, at ground level, almost anywhere in the developed world, was impossibly exciting – especially for those who had made peace with the fact that they would probably never visit the Arctic Circle or the Pyramids at Giza.  

I remembered the story when I heard about Google’s Cultural Institute, a new(ish) project to bring cultural institutions all over the world to our screens. I’ve always thought that the reality of Street View might have disappointed those computer class students – turns out, most streets look pretty boring – but this new feature certainly wouldn’t.

Using both their Street View technology and more high quality cameras, Google has taken photos of the collections, and in some cases the entire interior, of museums and other points of cultural interest. This week, they launched the St Paul’s Cathedral collection, which includes a street view style tour of the interior (above), and a tour inside Christopher Wren’s oak and lead model of the cathedral:

It also includes the largest gigapixel (a photo comprised of a billion pixels) ever taken by Google, which depicts the intricate mosaics on the Quire ceiling: 

Here’s what you see if you zoom right in on the left hand side of the central dome: 

The photos are actually far more detailed than any view you’d get inside the cathedral, making the photo an invaluable resource for art historians, as well as people who like looking at nice mosaics. 

The team at St. Paul’s told me that they’re especially pleased with the impact this will have on accessibility. The cathedral’s centuries-old stone staircases aren’t traversible by wheelchairs, or anyone without the mobility to clamber up 250+ steps. The project also opens up the cathedral to those unable to stump up the £18 entry fee

The Cultural Institute has so far photographed 1,000 sites across 70 countries. The site has had over 41m visitors, who spend, on average, over 3.5 minutes on the site per visit. (As anyone who works on the internet knows, this is a Very Long Time.) 

Highlights include a street view of the Giza Necropolis: 

 

And a tour of the entire British Museum collection:


At the risk of sounding like a Google stooge (I’m not, promise), this project is a) not going to make much profit for the company and b) is just a really nice thing to do. Go forth and visit the wonders of the world. Maybe show a grandparent, too. 

All images: Google.
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