Innovation

Inside the digital tour of Sydney Opera House with Google Cultural Institute

A trip down under to visit the iconic Sydney Opera House is now as easy as a few mouse clicks and a visit to the Google Cultural Institute platform.

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The extraordinary sculptural form of the roof takes shape (1965)
(Image: Max Dupain, State Library of New South Wales)

The Sydney Opera House is one Australia's most monumental landmarks and a must visit for tourists. For many, however, the distance and cost involved to travel to Sydney is a massive obstacle.

Travellers no longer have to deal with the long haul flight or the fear of missing out, thanks to the Sydney Opera House recently announcing a partnership with Google Cultural Institute to give visitors the chance to explore Australia's most famous building right from their screens.

Sam Doust, curator of Google Cultural Institute for the Sydney Opera House, said the 50 online exhibits weave together approximately 1,000 items of archival photographs, drawings, and documents of past performances, interviews, rehearsals, as well as documentation of when the famous building was being designed and built.

Created in collaboration with the Lab at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, the collection also includes a 360-degree experience of the Opera House designed specifically for Google Cardboard, giving viewers the chance to experience the building from the outside via street view through to the different concert halls and foyer areas.

Doust explained the concept to create such an exhibition was introduced to the Sydney Opera House initially by Google, and their desire to encompass performing arts and classical art into their existing collection that already exists of other featured global landmarks such as the Hiroshima Peach Memorial and the Taj Mahal.

But the six-month long project, which started last October, was not a matter of collating together old images stored in a box that was collecting dust in the storage room. Instead, for Doust, it was a challenge of trying to find the right content for the collection and securing the rights to them.

"One thousand is not a trivial number, but at the same time we're not an art gallery," he said, pointing out the exhibits are made up of collections from Doust's own personal contribution, and from the New South Wales State Library, the Powerhouse Museum, resident photographers, state records, and private collections.

Doust said the objective of the giant curation process was to string materials—many of which have never been publicly been available before—together to tell different stories including the history of the building, the story behind people who built the Opera House, celebrations of the building itself, as well as the collection of 40-plus years worth of performances by resident companies such as the Australian Ballet, Sydney Theatre Company, Bell Shakespeare, and Opera Australia.

Some specific exhibits include performances by cellist and Sydney Symphony Orchestra director of artistic planning Benjamin Schwartz at sunrise in the Utzon Room; and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra rehearsing in the Concert Hall stage with David Robertson, chief conductor and artistic director.

"Performances have really ramped up in the last decade... and it's not just one performance but multiple performances, and you think about how much content is coming out of this place and the diversity of it is insane, so there is a lot to say there," Doust said.

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Jørn Utzons competition submission drawing number 1
(Image: Jørn Utzon, Hellebæk, Denmark, Sydney Opera House)

Rebecca Taylor, Sydney Opera House project manager, added the curation process involved scanning a lot of the materials as many of them were in non-digital formats.

"It was one of the lovely things for us internally to trawl through images that we had. We really did uncover some hidden gems in the archive and they've just been sitting there. The fact that you could digitise them and put them up there it was quite lovely. It shows the potential of what you can do," she said.

She further added the project of this kind has ever undertaken by the Opera House, highlighting the stories that are told as part of the exhibit helps consolidate all the stories into one place.

"You really do start to bring all the strands of the Opera House into one place, and it's rare to see that and to access it freely," she said.

Doust commended the user experience of the Google Cultural Institute platform, in particularly the recently updated mobile version, for making compiling the exhibits together simpler, describing it as being "googlised" in many ways.

He pointed out one reservation he had about the platform, and a missing component he hopes to see be introduced in the future, is the ability to link all the exhibits together, saying because all the exhibits is one threaded story.

Going forward, Taylor said there are plans to keep adding to the archive of exhibits.

"It's something we are looking at on our end to keep the stories evolving and to keep them alive as the Opera House looks towards its renewal, and the future."

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About Aimee Chanthadavong

Since completing a degree in journalism, Aimee has had her fair share of covering various topics, including business, retail, manufacturing, and travel. She continues to expand her repertoire as a tech journalist with ZDNet.

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