As buildings around the world started to lock their doors last March, and the public turned to the internet to provide yoga classes, at-home gigs, and sour dough recipes, many art galleries also started finding ways to share their collections virtually. Suddenly we had the opportunity to explore collections from museums across the world from our own homes. Here I share a list of some of my favourite lockdown finds, to which I expect to return, even as galleries re-open. The list is skewed towards the larger international museums with the resources to produce such high quality content. Furthermore, it is highly digested, so I recommend falling down your own rabbit hole of online culture.
Offering #1: Virtual Tours
Through the Google Arts and Culture programme, some major museums now offer virtual tours of their collections. I find the street-view style interface tricky to navigate, however, and the artworks difficult to connect with. Some have launched their own interactive virtual tours with more success. The Rijksmuseum’s Masterpieces Up Close project is limited to the most famous of its paintings, but is nonetheless impressive. Virtual visitors click and drag their way through the museum, stopping to listen to audio-guide style descriptions of the collection. Highlights include Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (c. 1660), and a brilliant presentation on Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642). Some of the sound effects may be more creepy than immersive, but there is a genuine pleasure in being able to explore a museum at one’s own pace again.
Also worth a look is the British Museum’s virtual offering. The graphics encourage random picking and choosing of objects, but the thoughtful links to other objects and colour-coded themes keep the visitor moving seamlessly.
Offering #2: YouTube Curator Presentations
A great place to start is London’s National Gallery’s channel. Not only does it have an impressive back catalogue of educational offerings, but the gallery’s team has been busy uploading quality content since the beginning of lockdown. Their series ‘A curated look at…’ is a particular highlight. For around 15 minutes, a curator will discuss several of the gallery’s pictures on one theme, while the camera zooms in on the brushwork.
Another lovely series is the ‘Five minute meditations’. As the title suggests, these are quick guided meditations that begin with breath control à la the popular Headspace app. They then move into a mindful examination of a work of art, encouraging you to lose yourself in the paintwork. Mindfulness may or may not be your thing, but I do encourage you to full-screen the video and pull on some headphones for these. In this video, based on JMW Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed (1844)’, the camera pulls out details that I had never noticed, taking the viewer nose to nose with the canvas.
If you have half an hour to spare, years’ worth of recorded lectures are also available from the national gallery. These sit the viewer in front of one of the gallery’s most popular paintings, always well-presented by top art historians.
The Met Museum in New York has also gone back to its archives to engage a lockdown audience. The series From the Vaults ranges from a silent 1928 behind-the-scenes film to 1980s documentaries. They are well worth a browse.
Offering #3: Online Exhibitions
More victims of lockdown were the temporary exhibitions, which galleries were forced to close. The curators of the Ashmolean Museum’s Young Rembrandt exhibition in Oxford, England, were quick to respond. Here, curator An Van Camp introduces the collection, alongside an excellent online guide.
Unmissable too is the National Gallery of Victoria’s virtual rendering of its recent Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines exhibition. Their bold graphic art lends itself well to the virtual space, and the program is easy to navigate.
- Aubrey Beardsley at the Tate
- Andy Warhol at the Tate
- The Met Gallery’s Selections from the Department of Drawings and Prints: Collectors’ Collections exhibition.
Though I do not think that any of these resources can fully replace the physical experience of wandering a gallery and getting nose to nose with the artwork, I expect that museums will continue to explore these virtual display cases. They are a great opportunity to expand their worldwide presence, not to mention improving art access and education. I am now looking forward to returning to these galleries with new insight found while lockdown culture surfing.
I’m Teresa Macnab, and I am acting as a Student Ambassador for the second cohort @ The Art Story this summer. I have just graduated from the University of St Andrews with a degree in Classics, during which I took as many art history modules as possible! I’m interested in the interaction between literary and art history to tell stories, particularly in the ancient world.