Experience art like never before – virtually

Paradoxically, being home-bound enables us to travel further and more frequently than ever before. And that, discovers PETRA MASON, means we can appreciate art by clicking our way round the world.

As we hurtle into our second year of the pandemic, we don’t really need to be reminded by chirpy arts writers that it’s been more than 12 long months since we could freely and physically enter a museum or art gallery. Yet, even during the semi-stasis of lockdown, here I am tapping away joyfully on my laptop and marvelling at how easy it is to see, for example, Awakenings, the latest exhibition of the Rubin Museum. Before Covid-19, I would have had to take a 16-hour flight from Johannesburg to New York and then catch a cab to West 17th Street.

Virtual museum art travels

Listening on Instagram to the museum director musing that “there is nothing that can replace in-person encounters with art”, it’s pretty incredible that I am at the tip of Africa, perched on a designer riempie stool and able to join others navigating ancient artworks as we ‘unplug, step away from the chaos and embark on a journey of self-knowledge and transformation’. And to do this? All you need is an internet connection and some online direction. 

With travel plans on hold – particularly for South Africans – how does one decide which museums to visit virtually? Many have reported large increases in the number of people visiting their websites and hundreds round the world have partnered with Google Arts & Culture to place us front and centre via 3D navigation. A few of South Africa’s museums are mapped, too: the Robben Island Museum and the Johannesburg Art Gallery (made possible by the Friends of JAG), while the North-West University impressively created its own map. 

With much of the programming at classroom level, virtual museum visits can be a real bonus for educators. Or, with a little imagination, they can become fun at-home date nights, when couples can attend talks, curate personal favourite artworks or host, for example, a French culture night featuring fine wine and a curator chat. Personally, I like to look around and imagine being ridiculously rich and selecting what I would covet and collect for my imaginary Venetian palazzo. 

Another online upgrade for the culturally curious is YouTube. Most cultural institutions have a channel, so all you have to do is visit it and subscribe; you’ll find no better way to spend your time. 

Ideal for winter armchair travel and mental stimulation, the following are SIX OF THE BEST to famous institutions across the globe that have opened their doors, virtually, to the public.

The British Museum, London 

Virtual museum art travels
Virtual museum art travels

This venerable institution innovatively uses Google’s Street View technology to enable visitors to point and click their way through its galleries. It also offers a more conventional way to view the collections with tours that focus on specific topics, perfect for date nights at home (cue ‘A Foggy Day’ sung by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald as background music). You can, for example, take a tour on Roman food or on Egyptian mummification practices. 

Pérez Art Museum, Miami 

Virtual museum art travels

Renowned as much for its modern design by Herzog and De Meuron and its versatile use of space as for its displays of contemporary art, the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) offers a tour of its architecture via its YouTube channel. Here you can appreciate the museum building’s dramatic waterside location as well as its extraordinary design, which is based on Stiltsville, a nearby village built over water that is kept cool by sea breezes. While the museum’s legendary art parties may be on hiatus, throughout the pandemic PAMM has continued to expand its virtual programming, including its popular Scholl lecture series. 

I found particularly fascinating the progressive institution’s series No More Rulers, which features graffiti legends Futura and Lee Quiñones in conversation with museum director Franklin Sirmans. The talk, commemorating Futura’s latest book Futura-isms (published by Princeton University Press in association with No More Rulers), reveals a real intimacy as long-time friends Futura and Quiñones relate stories, share insight of New York’s art world, past and present, and reflect on their own evolving identities as artists and what it means to be a cross-boundary creator today.

The Louvre, Paris 

Virtual museum art travels

One of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, the Louvre offers seven different tours you can navigate from your shelter-in-place. They encompass archaeology, artefacts and art, so perhaps you’d like to take a virtual walk to see the remains of the moat built in 1190 to protect Paris from attack or maybe explore the medieval foundations of the palace that is now the museum. Most people visit the museum’s Petit Galerie as it offers the largest number of virtual options: some are devoted to performance art and dance, others to illustration. The Louvre’s main collection is also on display, of course, so now you can see the Mona Lisa without the crowds. 

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Virtual museum art travels
Virtual museum art travels

An extensive online version of the Van Gogh Museum’s gallery space enables visitors to examine, on a virtual tour, 200 paintings and more than 500 drawings by this iconic Dutch artist. They can even get extraordinarily close to the troubled Vincent by accessing almost 750 handwritten letters that he penned, rather poignantly, to his brother Theo – a personal touch that provides insight into the artist’s mental state and creative process. The museum also offers several apps to download, some specifically for children. 

The Art Institute of Chicago

Virtual museum art travels
Virtual museum art travels

This grand old establishment is filled with the works of Impressionist painters such as Renoir and Van Gogh. You can view its extensive collection of online resources, including a full exploration of its recent exhibition Monet and Chicago: An Overview, or check out 40 of its best selections in Google’s Arts & Culture section.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Virtual museum art travels

Although you won’t be able to take a stroll from The Plaza Hotel through Central Park to get there or jump onto the scenic bus ride along Fifth Avenue, you can still visit ‘The Met’. Its 360° Project is its version of a virtual tour, set up with a series of YouTube videos that provide a view of different pockets of this New York City institution. While ‘wandering’, you can navigate to see Egyptian mummies or knights, or you can ‘scroll up’ to Washington Heights for the medieval art and architecture finery of the Cloisters, including close details of the tapestries that once adorned many a postcard. 

Good to know

Other museums you may find interesting include: