The British Museum gave new meaning to the phrase ‘armchair traveller’ yesterday when it flung open its virtual doors to the world through a partnership with Google.

In one of the biggest projects embarked on by the Google Cultural Institute, nearly 5,000 of the Museum’s works have been digitised to allow cyber visitors to enjoy a virtual tour of its world-famous corridors. This has been made possible through Google’s Street View technology and the Museum is the largest indoor space to have been captured using it.  

In a blog post on the Museum’s website, Director Neil MacGregor links the initiative to the Museum’s founding principles:

“We live in a world where sharing knowledge has become easier, we can do extraordinary things with technology which enables us to give the Enlightenment ideal on which the Museum was founded a new reality. It is now possible to make our collection accessible, explorable and enjoyable not just for those who physically visit, but to everybody with a computer or a mobile device.”

A host of features is said to distinguish the project from any other digitisation initiatives previously undertaken, which tend to be used mostly by academic audiences. Not only are the objects available to view online but a special microsite named ‘The Museum of the World’ will allow users to “explore and make connections between the world’s cultures”.

Visitors to the site will be able to enjoy objects such as the 4th-century Admonitions Scroll from China in super-high resolution, revealing more than the naked eye could ever see. Due to its fragile nature, the scroll has only ever been available to view for a few months of the year. It has now become a permanent fixture online after Google spent three days photographing it. Users will also be able to take a virtual walking tour of all 85 of the Museum’s permanent galleries and outdoor buildings. The footage required for the virtual tour took 15 months to film.

So will rainy-day trips to the Museum become a thing of the past? On the contrary, MacGregor reassures us that some things will never change and that the new platform might actually encourage more visitors to the physical site:

“None of this is to deny the power of seeing an object in the flesh in a gallery, nothing will replace that experience, but it does allow a far greater public access to the Museum and its unparalleled collection.”