In times of adversity, we look to art to give form to chaos. But where do you go when the chaos keeps you from art entirely? It will have to be online. As the coronavirus pandemic stretches into yet another month, keeping arts institutions closed across the globe, museums’ websites are now posting traffic numbers that were once unimaginable.
The Musée du Louvre in Paris has reported a tenfold increase in web traffic, from 40,000 to 400,000 visitors per day. Visits to the websites of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London are also up by huge multiples. Audiences are seeking out arts material for children — the Metropolitan Museum of Art reports an elevenfold uptick to #MetKids, its youth education initiative. Remember just a decade ago, when the Met raised hackles, within and beyond its walls, for its ambitious digitization initiative, as if it were dangerous to offer more than 400,000 high-resolution, free-to-download images of the collection? No one’s saying that now.
Should a museum aim to replicate online the exact experience of visiting in person the world’s great picture galleries and palaces? They’ve been trying for two decades, and the pictures have certainly gotten crisper. In too many cases, virtual museum walk-throughs remain unwieldy, with herky-jerky navigation. Often information is out of date. And there’s no coffee!
The truth is that a museum’s digital assets can’t duplicate its brick-and-mortar presence — and the best of them, the ones I’ve selected here, do not try. Rather, they regard a museum’s physical and digital activities as complementary platforms of a single mission. They take the ambition and intelligence and public commitment they bring to the galleries, and feed it into new channels onscreen.
When cultural institutions shut in China, then Italy, and then the rest of the world, museum boosters blew the dust off a digital project some of us had forgotten: Google’s Arts & Culture initiative, which promises virtual experiences of the world’s great galleries with the same 360-degree views familiar from its Maps application. (The effort is not wholly altruistic: Google’s culture division, based in Paris and part of a nonprofit arm of its parent, Alphabet, constitutes a big part of a major “soft lobbying” effort to endear the search giant to European antitrust regulators.)
Google has since partnered with hundreds of new institutions, notably in Asia, and now you can toggle from the British Museum to the Sydney Opera House with the flick of a browser tab. It had been a while since I’d explored Google’s museum walk-throughs, and they remain a poor cousin of a real museum visit. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg appears blown out by an atomic flash, its collection of Rembrandts as grainy as an Etch A Sketch. The walk-throughs can also be years out of date: Google’s record of the Musée d’Orsay’s Impressionist collection looks nothing like it did when I last visited in December.
Really, you don’t fire these up to scrutinize art. You do it for the same reason I procrastinate by dropping the little yellow guy in random spots on Google Street View: for a quick, moderately pleasant immersion, one that allows you to think, at least for a minute or so, “I am there.”
With Google, therefore, concentrate on museums whose architecture tends to visual splendor, like the São Paulo Museum of Art, whose painting collection hangs on free-standing glass easels designed by the great Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. Or Berlin’s Neues Museum, housed in a bombed-out Neoclassical structure renovated by David Chipperfield: the gashed walls and half-repainted frescoes are a delight, even if the Egyptian antiquities are barely visible. And since surroundings have the upper hand over individual works, Google’s app is also ideal for a brief gambol through world heritage sites, like the Palace of Versailles or Delhi’s Red Fort, the main residence of the Mughal emperors.
A few historical museums have built robust virtual walk-throughs of their own — above all the Palace Museum in Beijing, whose website and app allow you to explore the galleries and residences of the Forbidden City in very high definition. (The site has an English interface, but information on individual objects is only in Chinese.) The Vatican Museums’ site has sufficient, if not mind-blowing, immersive views of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s Rooms, while the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw has some of the highest-definition renderings I’ve seen of current contemporary museum exhibitions.
For kids, the site Muséosphère offers 360-degree tours of the lushest rooms in 13 of Paris’s municipal museums, including the Musée de la Vie Romantique and Musée Carnavalet. The Uffizi in Florence has just started its own virtual tour (of higher quality than the one Google hosts), and the Louvre offers a 360-degree walk-through of its Petite Galerie, a space for families and students.
But the smartest museums are thinking beyond the “virtual visit.” Since the coronavirus outbreak, the best on-the-fly digital exhibition conversions I’ve yet seen come from Estonia — the world leader of high-tech living and governance, where the Tallinn Art Hall has revamped its entire spring program for the web. Instead of dubiously “interactive” 360-degree views, Tallinn Art Hall has produced high-resolution video walk-throughs shot from fixed positions, within which you can click any object to pause the pan and scrutinize each sculpture or print.
It was once hard for museums, many of them small nonprofits, to keep pace with digital technology. A good number splurged on virtual displays programmed in Flash and other now disfavored protocols; others saw the web only as a marketing tool for the “real” museum offline. But costs have dropped, software has gone open-source, and several museums — like the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, and especially the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam — have made huge strides in collection display.
These museums now provide high-definition pictures not only of their prized masterpieces, but of the strange and revealing outliers that were once shut up in storage. They offer multiple ways into a collection beyond the curators’ taxonomies, and even let you organize works of art yourself. (The Rijksmuseum and the Walters, like more and more museums, offer these high-resolution images in “open access,” that is, with no copyright restrictions.)
High-resolution JPGs have transformed the ethos of a museum like the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which was once so technophobic it didn’t even allow color photography in catalogs. Now its digital collection allows you to pull individual works out of the museum’s idiosyncratic ensembles, and to mix and match at your pleasure.
Because art is not just what’s on a museum’s walls. “Art” is a whole collection of experiences and ideas and principles, and a museum’s digital and physical programming have to operate as coequals. The museum that understands this most fully is the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, which a decade ago rolled out the most aggressive and accessible websites of any American museum. The site is a networked treasure house, where its collection and exhibition displays mingle with a panoply of artistic and art-related content, like the Walker Reader, an editorial arm of the museum that features debates on Indigenous art, or on how museums respond to the #MeToo movement.
Treating the digital museum as coequal to the physical museum means you can be nimble when disaster strikes, and the Walker has already published pandemic-related articles and curated new video displays and playlists. Similarly nimble institutions include the Wellcome Collection, in London, which has curated a fascinating digital display of quarantine imagery across the centuries.
Finally, the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter outside of Oslo, one of the smartest museums in Europe, needed just two weeks to introduce a whole new website that showcases both virtual exhibition walk-throughs and decades of performances. Each week brings new footage: up soon are a 1982 performance by Joseph Beuys and a 1990 concert by Yoko Ono.
Concerts, Confabs and Curators’ Cocktails
What the Henie Onstad and the Tallinn Art Hall have figured out is that there is already a killer app for museums: video. High-resolution or low, robustly linked to collection information or tossed off from a smartphone, video has offered us homebound museum-goers a view of art that’s not just more intelligent and more culturally significant than 360-degree immersion, but also a lot cheaper.
No museum has used streaming video more ambitiously than the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, in the suburbs of Copenhagen, whose “Louisiana Channel” on YouTube has racked up more than 100,000 subscribers who can discover interviews, readings and performances by artists, authors and scientists (almost all in English). Many videos complement the museum’s brick-and-mortar programming: the artists Laurie Anderson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Rachel Rose and Trevor Paglen, each participated in the Louisiana’s grand 2018 exhibition “The Moon” and spoke to the camera about the art of lunar exploration. But the Louisiana understands YouTube as much more than a promotional tool; it’s a presentation format in its own right, with room for the author Colm Toibin (riffing on a sculpture by Giacometti), the architect Balkrishna Doshi (on the evolution of architecture in India), and the musician Brian Eno (conducting a public singalong of “Cotton Fields”). They can speak formally or informally, about the collection or their own work, at length or in snippets.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney’s major art museum, has made a fast and impressive pivot to YouTube since the coronavirus shutdown — flooding the social network with drawing lessons, mini-lectures, exhibition tours, and concerts that give the museum a new, global public face. The Pinacoteca di Brera, which has the best painting collection in hard-hit Milan, has produced more than five dozen videos in the last month: short, not always with high production values, but offering immediate confirmation that the work of the museum goes on.
The best museum experiences online recognize that different formats can have different tones and styles. Yes, a collection database should be as hi-res and authoritative as possible. But new programming in a time of crisis can and should be less polished, more reactive, more intimate, more urgent.
Today, some museums in China have reopened, and in May, Germany and other countries where infections have waned will follow. American ones may be closed for months more, and are already facing extreme budget shortfalls. If this crisis teaches them that digital programming cannot be neglected, it might also instruct them about the accomplishments that can come from necessity. Throw away your VR dreams, spend $100 on a microphone and a gimbal, hit the record button on your smartphone, and speak directly to us.