Arts and Entertainment

The Promise of Pictures: Why Virtual Museum Tours Are Necessary

Examining the relevance of virtual art tours and the solace they provide in such a stressful time.

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One of the defining features of New York City is the museums: the enriching histories they impart, the wretched stories they hold, the potential for inciting conversation and introspection. Considering the unrelenting traffic, dynamic strangers, and persistent buzzing of business activity, it seems impossible to find a moment of quiet or space to breathe.

Art museums exist as these small pockets of silence: the broad thematic strokes that render you speechless and make room only for whispers, poignant glances, and hushed footsteps from surrounding visitors as you make your way from one room to the next. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rubin Museum, the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art are some of such spaces: a pause from the ruckus that is so uncharacteristically New York.

Though in quarantine, the need for silence is sometimes deafening. Some of us may be overwhelmed by stimuli in our own homes, with the chaos of our family life replacing the ruckus of New York City. Still, with all of us secluded in our own homes, the silence that births deep thinking, that works to amplify your own thought, is in greater abundance than it has ever been.

But the opportunities to experience camaraderie in shared contemplation or aesthetic appreciation of quality art are both sorely lacking. Thus, like most institutions and businesses during COVID-19, museums have been forced to adapt to the instability of this isolation period. From this, we’ve gotten “virtual tours.”

While a good number of New York museums have opened up in the past couple of months, implementing safety regulations as well as attending to health concerns, many of them have continued to maintain their museum tours online, which were instituted when the pandemic was in its first stages.

For example, the Guggenheim Museum allows you to saunter along their spiral staircase from the comfort of your bed with the help of Google Arts & Culture. Through a series of images, you’re still able to get a sense of the architecture—a riveting and rotative circulation that can be overwhelming when physically in the building. You can “walk” amongst the photographs of Catherine Opie, sculptures by Haegue Yang, and paintings by Juliana Huxtable and admire their acuteness from the comfort of your own home.

But art museums, and by extension, virtual tours, are not exclusive to New York locations. Museums all over the world have been forced to adapt to the circumstances of the pandemic. The British Museum, for instance, has made its Egyptian collection more accessible to an international audience, allowing visitors to the website to explore the Egyptian mummy collection and the revered Rosetta Stone.

In that way, virtual tours have broached some important conversations. For many centuries, museums were a symbol of the elite: through not only the quality of the works that were exhibited, but also those who frequented them, spectators who could afford leisure. To some degree, this idea persists today, as those who are normally privileged enough to afford the time and money to engage with these institutions are those who primarily occupy them. While some museums are free to certain individuals, the majority of them remain defined by their exclusivity.

This has been the main advantage of quarantine: allowing these rich collections to be more accessible to the public. We may be bound to our homes, but avid art enthusiasts and interested frequenters are no longer restricted by place or price. To visit the Musée d’Orsay, one no longer needs to be able to afford or make time for a seven-hour flight to Paris. They can simply set aside an hour or two, gain access to a laptop or some other viable electronic device, and revel in the beauty of timeless works like Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” or Van Gogh’s self-portrait.

Some argue, however, that these virtual art tours are incomparable to the in-person experience. These sentiments admittedly hold some truth to them. It’s difficult to content ourselves with the two-dimensional image of the Winged Victory of Samothrace when the three-dimensional extravagance exists at the Louvre. The experience of admiring it on a laptop screen is not the same as witnessing the winded breaths of passersby, its authority presiding in its antiquity, and the attention its beauty commands.

Thus, it’s worth noting this conversation transcends the pandemic. These virtual tours have broadened the current expanse of the art world and raised questions about its future—ones that demand answers.

But while we remain in this isolation period with the end nowhere near in sight, virtual art tours remain a noteworthy alternative. As for the period after, it is important to continue considering these virtual exhibitions as a viable option. Until then, we satisfy ourselves with the screens, persist in our curiosity, and revere in these works’ beauty. Perhaps difficult to appreciate in these tumultuous times, but a reprieve nonetheless.