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It’s now week two of “shelter at home” and I already have cabin fever. I’ve watched far too many Netflix shows and taken our dog, Todd, for way more walks than he actually needs, so I’m clearly going to need to find some new endeavors as time goes on.
I’ve found my Facebook feed full of suggestions of what to do while we’re home--some helpful and others not so much. One great suggestion is cooking around the world--but I'll save that for another article. Another idea I’ve found intriguing is virtual museum tours. I love visiting and writing about the world’s great museums, but is it possible to enjoy them virtually? I decided to check it out and share my findings with you.
What Is A Virtual Museum Tour?
If you’ve never taken a virtual museum tour, let me explain what it is. Through Google Arts & Culture, you can choose from 2,500 museums worldwide and then take a “street view” tour of that institution. Use your mouse to “browse” select portions of the museum. Across the bottom of the street view are thumbnails of various artworks. Click on one and you’ll see the gallery in which it appears. Click again on the box where the work’s title and artist’s name appear, and you’ll be taken to a page with detailed information.
After spending several hours exploring a wide range of museums on Google Arts & Culture here are my observations. First, I really miss seeing museums in person and the next time I’m able to visit one, I’ll be ever so grateful. However, there are some advantages to virtual museum tours that can’t be overlooked.
Virtual tours have no crowds! Last year Jason and I were fortunate enough to visit both the Uffizi Gallery and L’Accademia in Florence. While both are amazing they were also seriously crowded. The same could be said of our visits to all the major museums in Europe. I’ve enjoyed the online tours which have allowed me to see these incredible spaces without people.
I’ve also enjoyed reading the extensive commentary provided for the artworks. I’m the person that reads the little signs next to every painting or sculpture because I love to learn more about the artist, the artwork, and the materials. But sometimes this information is rather limited. Online, many museums have provided extensive information about the artworks selected.
I don’t think virtual museum tours will ever take the place of an in person visit, but for the time being, they are a nice alternative. And in the future, I’ll use these resources to supplement my visits.
Virtual Museum Tours and Exhibits To Check-Out
I’ve decided to share five virtual museum tours of institutions that I’ve also personally visited so I can provide the pros and cons of the online opportunities offered.
The British Museum in London is one of the world's largest and most important museums of human history and culture. It has more than seven million objects from all continents which illustrate and document the story of human culture from its beginning to the present. But how on earth can you tour a museum that’s this large and comprehensive?
Fortunately the British Museum's virtual tour has been laid out on a timeline instead of the street view used by most other museums. As you scroll through thousands of years you’ll see colored dots representing an important object. Click on the dot to read a bit about the item, or take advantage of the audio provided featuring descriptions from the museum’s curators. Jason and I visited the British Museum last fall, and while it was fascinating, it was also overwhelming. The online tour is a really nice introduction to such a vast collection.
I never get tired of talking or writing about The Getty Center. This world-class art museum, located in Los Angeles, not only features an impressive collection, but is housed in beautiful buildings designed by Richard Meier. Add to that lovely gardens and no admission fee and you pretty much have the perfect museum. So I was doubtful about how this would translate to a virtual tour. And quite frankly, the Google online experience isn’t that great. So what I recommend is going directly to Getty's website to appreciate the online exhibits they’ve curated.
The Getty is a well funded institution and that shows in its online offerings. Currently there are two online exhibits I’d recommend, Michaelangelo: Mind of the Master and Bauhaus: Building The New Artist. If you enjoy art, you’ll find plenty on their website to enjoy.
The Art Institute of Chicago, one the world’s top museums, is the first art museum I ever visited. It’s collection is vast and includes a number of my favorite French Impressionists paintings. My mom took me and my sister, Beth, here dozens of times when we were kids. I have fond memories of this place, so I was eager to check out their virtual tour and online offerings.
Like the Getty, the Google virtual tour of the Art Institute is disappointing. But they have an excellent section on their website called Visit Us Virtually. Here you can explore their online El Greco exhibit, link to their YouTube library, and read digital publications. There are also educational activities for kids and resources for educators.
The National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian, is dedicated to understanding the natural world and our place in it. This museum has created its own virtual tour and it’s quite good and extensive--there are over 15 different tours in their current exhibitions section. Jason and I visited here, along with our son and his friend, several years ago during spring break. It was so crowded that it was hard to move around and we left earlier than originally planned. I really like their online tour since it takes an enormous collection and makes it easy and fun to explore. This would be a great resource for any kids currently homeschooling.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is the largest art museum in the western United States with 142,000 objects in it’s collection. I’ve been visiting for years and I never get tired of it. But for the first time ever I explored their online offerings and they are extensive.
If you want to start with the Google Arts & Culture website you’ll be able to enjoy a LACMA exhibit called, Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715-2015. Fortunately, instead of the street view, this exhibit is presented as a slideshow with photos and text describing menswear over a 300 year period. It also includes a behind the scenes video of curators preparing the exhibit.
LACMA’s own website features many online resources including videos, audio soundtracks and courses. Their YouTube channel has a wide variety of videos about current and past exhibits and artists. I enjoyed the featured video called A Brief History of John Baldessari. It isn’t the easiest website to navigate, but there is a wealth of resources on it.
What Do I Think About Virtual Museum Tours?
I don’t think virtual museum tours will be replacing in person visits anytime soon. Not only is the technology limited, but seeing something online just can’t replace standing in front of a masterpiece. However, there are benefits. First, the lack of crowds. Second, the opportunity to read more in depth information about the artwork while viewing it is really helpful. In the future I will definitely be using these tools either before or after museum visits to learn more about a particular artist or artwork.
But what I really appreciate is the amount of resources museums offer online--something I never knew before. I had no idea that many of my favorite museums offered online exhibits and YouTube Channels. Going forward, I’ll be keeping tabs on these websites and using them as an opportunity to learn more about topics that interest me.