As Thomas Merton, famed writer, poet, and American Trappist monk once said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”.
Never has there been a better time to lose ourselves in art, to admire and acknowledge perspectives different from our own. To be in awe of another’s talent, whether past, present, traditional, or avant-garde. To become absorbed by color, shape, and form. In today’s digital age, we need not travel to London, Spain, or Washington DC, to appreciate the masterpieces and exhibition halls of the world. The world of art, quite literally, can come to us. No pushy camera-wielding tourists, no partial glimpses of the Mona Lisa, no timed-tickets, and no time limits.
Early museums began as the private collections of wealthy families or individuals, and some of the first public museums were accessible only by the middle and upper classes. There were fears of crowds damaging the paintings and artifacts on display. Some museums went so far as to require patrons to be admitted only after asking for permission in writing.
Thankfully things have changed. Museums have shaken their stuffy, sterile, environments for more open-plan, interactive, and user-friendly ones. In doing so, they have attracted an increasingly broader and younger clientele. All good news for the museum industry, which needs the support of ongoing generations in order to survive.
Many exhibits and displays cross generational borders, some museums focus on specific topical and sensitive issues. While exploring a museum, we can learn how the past can directly influence the present. Many museums have become powerful tools in education, and have programs geared towards pre-schoolers all the way up through senior citizens. Museums, simply stated, are important.
Underscoring the importance of museums and galleries, is the virtual and online collections that have been increasingly popular throughout the current pandemic. Some are launching more in-depth and richer content in light of it. Some have created at-home programs, ‘masterpiece’ coloring books for children, and virtual reality walks through exhibits.
A study by the Harris Group shed light on another reason museum visits, whether virtual or in-person, are so vital to our well-being. They discovered that 72 percent of millennials would rather spend money on experiences than material things. It has been said that while material things give us a boost of instant pleasure, the happiness that comes from an experience is longer lasting, and generally more rewarding.
People visit museums for many reasons. From stress relief, to learning about other cultures, to expanding their knowledge, and yes, even to escape reality. The new normal dictates, for now, that we must view art and visit museums differently. We can look at this as a chance to get up closer, and more personal, with the art. We can appreciate the opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal, the Vatican, and Banksy’s street art in the space of a day. Time travel at its best.
The following are ten standout museums and galleries worth a virtual ‘visit’. From the traditional to the quirky, the pre-war to the ultra-modern. All, however, are perfectly suited to transporting you to a place where you can lose yourself, or find yourself.
Museum of Art Sao Paulo
A private, non-profit museum founded in 1947 by a wealthy businessman, the Museum of Art Sao Paulo is Brazil’s first modern museum. MASP’s first works were curated by an Italian art dealer, Pietro Maria Bardi and soon became the Southern Hemisphere’s most important collection of European art, with over 8,000 pieces of art, sculpture, and textiles. Some of the museums most noteworthy pieces include works from Asian and African cultures, such as a sculpture of the African divinity Exu. Naturally, the collection boasts South American artists as well, including the well-known Brazilian painters Albino Bras and Rafael Borjes de Oliveira.
The architecture of the museum, designed by Lina Bo Bardi, is worth a Google search, as it is a modern marvel of art in itself. A juxtaposition of richly red painted concrete and towering glass, it hovers dramatically above the streetscape of Sao Paulo. It is no wonder that it has been so often photographed and admired.
The virtual museum tour of MASP, aided by the partnership of Google Arts and Culture, is remarkable. It allows the viewer to be the sole patron walking amongst the open, high-ceilinged gallery halls. You can slowly stride past a Van Gogh, a Renoir, or a Monet, with ease. The ornately framed art floats, suspended in glass, above square, pale, concrete blocks. Click on a screenshot from the gallery highlighted at the bottom of the screen to get a more detailed look at a particular piece of art, along with other specific facts and information. Then, feel free to continue along the halls at your leisure.
Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Back in 1975 Barbara Luderowski bought an old Stearns and Foster mattress warehouse. Two years later, the Mattress Factory, a non-profit cultural and educational organization was born. The factory soon became a haven for emerging artists on a local, regional, and international scope. Over the years it expanded, buying neighboring lots to allow for the artists-in-residence to exhibit their site-specific installations and alternate forms of art and expression.
The Mattress Factory propelled careers. In 1994, it was the first American museum to exhibit the controversial and thought-provoking art of British artist, Damien Hirst. In 2004, the museum presented a collection of work from 10 Cuban artists who were not allowed into the US to see the exhibition. A controversial moment, indeed.
Always unconventional and inventive, constantly pushing the boundaries and challenging traditional art, the Mattress Factory was certainly ahead of its time. Through video performance art, permanent installations, and supporting artists in-house, the Mattress Factory is a culmination of all there is to love about art.
In light of the museum’s current closing due to COVID-19, they have put together a collection of works, in the form of YouTube videos, that highlight specific artist exhibits. The YouTube clips bring you into Yayoi Kusama’s famous “Infinity Dots and Mirrored Room” as well as her exhibit “Repetitive Vision.” You can also gain insight into Allan Wexler’s “Bed Sitting Rooms for an Artist in Residence” that is all at once haunting and surreal.
Another series of videos has the artists speaking in their own words, a wonderful way to learn about the thought process and inspiration of the creator. One especially interesting installation is narrated by artist Nathan Hall, who created music for a piano that is dramatically suspended in mid air with ropes. The space, the objects in the room, and of course, the music, come together in (pun intended) harmony.
The British Museum, London
The British Museum has certainly raised the bar in regards to virtual displays and on-line learning. The interactive and imaginatively designed interface for their ‘Museum of the World’ exhibit is a graphic designer’s dream. And, no doubt, an art historian’s dream as well. The full screen timeline imagery allows the viewer, literally and metaphorically, to connect the dots of art through history. The timeline spans all seven continents and across multiple historical categories. You need only set your criteria.
Do you want to see Asian art from 500 AD that portrays a social commentary on power and identity? Would you rather travel back to 1300 BC in Africa to view artifacts that revolve around religion and belief? Perhaps you would like to see 20th century art from the deep south of the United States that reflects life and death. The possibilities are virtually endless.
Click on any dot in the timeline and a pop-up panel will give you the opportunity to find out more: a high-resolution image that can be magnified for more detail, a narrated audio feature (should you prefer to close your eyes and listen), related art and objects, and a Google map of the exact location of the art. The stylized timeline is an organic part of the overall experience. Ethereal pin pricks of sound accompany you as you navigate your journey through time. The Museum of the World experience excites and invigorates many senses simultaneously, and seems inherently designed to make learning about art more fun.
Rijks Museum, Amsterdam
The museum of the Netherlands, Rijks Museum, is comprised of 80 galleries and 8,000 objects spanning 800 years of Dutch art history. Quite an impressive resumé. The Netherlands is the home of many masters, Rembrandt being a highly recognizable and noteworthy one. The Rijks Museum has created a virtual art space for viewers that allows us to dive deep into Rembrandt’s world of art, among other famous artists.
The ‘Masterpieces Up Close’ link creates a place where the viewer can have an intimate experience with the museum’s most important works of art, and gain an understanding of the artist’s intentions and processes. With its clever online platform, it makes the art accessible to everyone in the world—no passport necessary.
According the the museums’ website, ‘Masterpieces Up Close’, “aims to recreate the experience of casually browsing a museum with a multi-media guide and 360 degree images.” As a viewer, you will take a ’walk’ through the gallery, zoom in on the finest details of the art, and listen and learn about 18 famous works of art.
The narration is engaging. No droll monotone. It is orated in a way that transports the listener to the historical time and place that the art was created. Timely and interesting sound effects punctuate the dialogue. It is as if you have your own lively docent on demand.
‘Experience the Night Watch’ is another spectacular link within Rijks’ website. An in-depth account that takes the viewer so deep into the famous Rembrandt 17th century masterpiece, that you could easily get lost for a few hours. Discover the secrets hidden within the art, the symbolism, and who is who within the artwork itself.
Museum of Broken Relationships
Having an identity crisis between a museum and a social media sharing site, the Museum of Broken Relationships is as quirky and trendy as it gets. The site claims to be a ‘virtual public space created with the sole purpose of treasuring and sharing heartbreak stories and symbolic possessions.’ Originating in the capital of Croatia, Zagreb, the museum was the brainchild of Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic in 2006. In 2010, it won the award as the most innovative and daring museum project in all of Europe. And for good reason—its collections— momentos of failed relationships, is not only daring, but funny, sad, and poignant.
The clean and organized layout of the site feels more like Etsy or Pinterest than a museum. In fact, the viewers are encouraged to share a break up story or object with a link solely for contributions. Each art object has its own unique brand of heartbreak, and is shareable to Twitter or FaceBook at the click of a button. A pawn shop of loves lost? A way to find company in misery? A place to find closure, gain strength, or vent? Wherever the Museum of Broken Relationships falls, it is anything but ordinary. Considered a globally crowd-sourced project, the Museum of Broken Relationships has two permanent locations in Los Angles and Zagreb, but in reality this museum exists around the globe.
National Palace Museum, Taipei
The National Palace Museum in Taiwan houses a staggering 700,000 pieces of art in its collection. The works range from Imperial Chinese artifacts, to Asian ceramics, to precious jade carvings. It boasts rare books from the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as metalwork commissioned by ancient kings. In short, it is a treasure trove of Asian masterpieces.
Since we can’t make a visit to the museum by traditional methods at the moment, we can at least appreciate the well-designed graphics and 720 degree VR Tour of the National Palace Museum from the comfort of our own homes.
Within the site, you have a few choices of the way in which you would like to visit the museum. Watching the 30 second time-lapse video is a good place to begin, a quick snapshot of the environs and scope of the property. From there, use the drop down menus for guidance on starting your tour. The Guided VR Tours allow you to select a specific part of the museum to see, a building, a floor or even a garden.
In clicking around, I thought the Dragon Pond sounded especially intriguing. It didn’t disappoint. In an instant, I found myself among the intertwining stone dragons in the center of the pond. The infographics are very well done, and consolidate all of the vital information about pieces of art, the history of the grounds, and more. A clever map tucked in the lower right corner means you will never have to worry about getting lost.
A different option is ‘Featured Routes’ which are pre-curated routes based on popular walks at the museum. I liked the idea of going on a treasure hunt so opted to walk among the ancient Chinese vases and bronzes within the collection.
Benaki Museum, Athens
Established in 1930 in a beautiful mansion in downtown Athens, the Benaki Museum houses Greek art from prehistoric through modern day times. As far as interactivity and virtual reality tours go, this is one of the cleanest, and most user-friendly platforms around. The interface is practically fool proof, and the viewer can easily navigate the treasures of the museum, floor by floor, and room by room, with the help of a simple graphic displayed on the bottom left of the screen. Within the exhibits, small bullseyes guide your mouse throughout the glass cases that are filled with extraordinary pieces. Ancient ceramics from thousands of years ago, gold medallions and jewelry, portraits and paintings accented with gold leaf are just the tip of the Greek iceberg. Small plus signs (+) are attached to individual cases or pieces of art so that you may hear more specifics about an artifact should you choose.
The audio tour is available in six languages, making the site even more widely accessible. The clean, open, soothing gray walls of the ground floor created an almost sanctuary like space. Having it all to myself was a true perk, of course.
One particular piece worth seeking out, and a highlight of the Benaki collection, is the pair of Mycenaean Female Figurines. They were found in tombs and shrines across the settlements of the area and date back to 1400 BC. Another highlight is the Corinthian Helmet, a lustrous bronze helmet that typifies the style of Ancient Greece and the city-state of Corinth. I couldn’t help but think of Russell Crowe in Gladiator as I marveled at this incredible relic from so long ago.
NASA, Langley, Virginia
Get suited up and prepare for lift-off. Here’s a chance for you, or any space loving member of your family to take a peek inside the NASA Glenn Research Center, where they design and research technology to further NASA’s missions in space exploration.
The main campus of the Glenn Research Center, located near the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport has wind tunnels, vacuum chambers, and drop towers, among other high-tech simulators as part of their world-class facility. NASA Glenn’s research and developing technologies will no doubt impact aeronautics and air travel for years to come.
The menu bar along the left side of the screen has quite a few interesting links including, ‘Space Tech’, ‘Solar System and Beyond’, and ‘Humans in Space.’ However, the NASA Glenn Virtual Tours link is the real reason to visit the site, providing fascinating content on particular aspects of this truly amazing space facility.
Ever wonder what it looks like inside an 8×6 Supersonic Wind Tunnel? Here’s your opportunity. It’s NASA’s only transonic wind tunnel. See where and how it is made via a mini time-lapse video, circle the staging area with 360 degree views, then head to the control room where all of the tunnel operations are conducted. An in-depth look at one of the most unique areas of science and technology is on display. With ten virtual tours to choose from, including: Zero-G, a Ballistics Impact Lab, and the Simulated Lunar Operations Laboratory, you can turn the lights off and lose yourself in the world of space for a few hours.
The Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy
Italy is home to some of the finest and most popular museums around the globe. In the future, visiting them will be possible again. For now, we can take tranquil strolls through the normally crowded halls. The Vatican Museums are quite possibly the most visited museums in the world, most definitely in Italy, with upwards of 5 million visitors a year. In the height of summer, the Vatican doors let in about 20,000 people per day. If there was ever a time to take advantage of a virtual tour, now is that time.
The collections of the Roman Catholic Church, with its 54 galleries, or sales, house the most important collections of Renaissance art worldwide. The Vatican Museums own 70,000 pieces of work, of which they display about one third to the public. The museums were founded in the early 16th century by Pope Julius 11 when he discovered and purchased a marble sculpture; Laocoön and His Sons, in Rome. He brought the sculpture to Vatican City and put it on public display. Hence, the birth of the Vatican Museums.
The seven virtual tours of the Vatican Museums are simple and straightforward, allowing the paintings and frescoes to speak for themselves. It is an oasis to visit, even from our living rooms. Introspective, moody and filled with rich history. You need not know much about Michelangelo and the Renaissance to be moved by the work. That said, Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are mesmerizing. Look up and zoom in at your leisure, seeing the arm of God reach lovingly towards Adam in the famous creation panel above.
Other virtual tours on the site include: the Niccoline Chapel, where you can see the frescoes of Fra Angelico, and Rafael’s Rooms, where you can discover many of Rafael’s works including the well-loved School of Athens. All of the rooms are transcending in their own way, and if nothing else, make us long for a time to go to Italy and view them in person.
Google Arts and Culture
Last on the list, but far from least, is the all-encompassing brainchild of Google. Google Arts and Culture is an online platform that has worldwide reach, extending access to thousands of visitors to see and learn about art across the planet. Launched in 2011 with the partnership of 17 museums, including MOMA in NYC, Uffizi in Florence and the Tate Gallery in London, Google Arts allows ‘armchair tourists’ to circumvent the earth on an art tour. In 2012, Google expanded its platform to 151 museums in 40 countries. What a global feat!
Through virtual galleries, street views, and microscope views, you can discover graffiti and street art of London, travel Europe through the eyes of Claude Monet, explore Easter Island, or take a trip into the Chauvet caves in France. Filled with educational tools for teachers, and projects for kids and adults alike, it is a world of its own that one could spend weeks or months exploring. Have any free time?
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