Like many of you I’m sure, I had planned to be in Europe, wasting my spring break away by visiting cultural landmarks, eating the local cuisine, and visiting local art museums. All those opportunities were stolen from me when the coronavirus hit. I am an avid museum-goer. I try to hit at least one whenever I travel. I am also (shocker) an art history student and a nerd for art. So, as balm for my soul over this spring break, I decided to look into the virtual museum experiences offered on Google Arts and Culture. It is pretty difficult, or maybe I am just technologically challenged, to manipulate their street-view platform, which is how you pretend you are actually walking around the museums (and that you have forgotten your glasses that day). With a little practice, however, and infinitely more patience, it can be a worthwhile activity for an hour or two.
- Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
I began with one of my favourite artists (call me basic if you must), Vincent Van Gogh. The Van Gogh museum had two online exhibitions available. These were interesting enough topics, but the experience was almost that of clicking through a powerpoint presentation done by someone who didn’t know how to spell very well. I looked through “Vincent van Gogh’s love life” (already they aren’t correctly capitalising his name). I would blame this on English not being the author’s first language, but at one point it read “form” instead of “from”, which just shows that it was typed in a hurry and without much thought. The content was interesting though, if slightly depressing. It seems Vincent was not lucky in love.
The street-view exploring feature was actually pretty fun. Even though I’ve never been there, however, I could tell I was missing out. For some of the works there was a harsh glare that made the painting’s details (key for Van Gogh paintings especially, as his brushstrokes were liberal and each one meant to render a thing as he saw it) hard to glean. In real life, most museums use a special glass that eliminates glare, and, even if they don’t, you can move around so that it goes away, but when you click away from these paintings you are forced to a spot farther away from the piece and you can only zoom in on it. Not sure if it was just my ineptness, but in online viewing one also loses the ability to learn more about the work via the (often free) audio guides provided at the ticket desk. The starred headphones stickers next to the paintings stares at you tantalisingly, showing that there is more to know here, but not for you.
At one point on the ground floor there was a timeline of Van Gogh’s life, which was a pretty good tool for learning. It provided short and sweet events in his life along with some relevant pictures are works of his that he completed during that period. Maybe that is all a timeline needs to be. It should be noted, however, that the captions next to the photos telling you what you’re looking at are too small and just get blurrier when you zoom in (his house in Arles I believe is one one them).
Moving to the upstairs exhibits, some of the works, the more famous ones, provide an option to click and get more information. One of these is Wheatfield with crows, painted within the last weeks of Van Gogh’s life. One of my favourite things to do at museums, however, is read the side card before any of my companions do, and pass off some of its information like I knew it beforehand. The zoom feature does not allow me to see the sidecard, and I suppose I can assume all it says is in the link, but I can’t know for sure, and that little joy is taken away from me. The zoom feature in the accompanying links works splendidly, but a key feature of Van Gogh’s work is the surface texture of his paintings, and this is completely taken away from any online reproduction of his works. However, I did enjoy clicking through the Van Gogh Museum, and I really appreciated the effort put into recreating the physical experience online.
2. Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico
The Olmedo had so much to see! There were 14 “stories” as they’re called, many of which went into the context and analysis of Frida Kahlo’s paintings. Because we share a birthday, I feel like Kahlo and I share a unique bond. Though she has taken on a slightly saint-like identity posthumously, she still stands (cruel play on words, my bad) a pinnacle of surrealist and feminist art. She created a lot of paintings, because she was bedridden most of her life, but while her portfolio is overflowing, most of her works did not leave Mexico.
The street-view feature was disappointing at first. What I assume was the first floor showed an array of colourful artefacts, that I have to assume are either from Diego Rivera (Kahlo’s on-again, off-again husband and love) and Kahlo’s house in Mexico, the Casa Azul, or they are from the museum’s namesake Dolores Olmedo’s private collection. Either way I saw no way of knowing, the side cards are too small and blurry to read, and I couldn’t find any links that popped up when I clicked on any of the items. Where you’ll find more luck is in clicking the paintings on the down bar. Google Arts and Culture will then take you right to a painting that has an accompanying link with more information. One of my favourite paintings of hers, Sin Esperanza, or, Without Hope, is exhibited here. So, if anything, I know what I’ll be doing next time I’m in Mexico. That might be the overall goal of these museums in uploading their layout. They know it will never be enough, and it will incentivise people to come and buy tickets in future. However, Mexico is pretty far from our little seaside town, so I loved being able to see the inside of this museum online, even if I know it’s not the same as seeing her works in person.
3. MoMA, NYC
Another great place to see both Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo is the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. This is the only museum I have actually visited in the flesh on this list. I thought I would check it out for you all anyway (free of charge! You’re welcome) to see how the online experience compares to real life.
Turns out: it doesn’t. The MoMA did not have a street-view feature at all, and only one story. It expounded on the life and career of Sophie Taeber Arp, a dadaist and abstractionist of the early 20th century. Her work was interesting, but it was way less than MoMA could have provided. I know firsthand how vast their collection of modern art is, and it is a shame that you can only see a fair few of them through pictures.
4. Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Ah Italy, a place so filled with beautiful art, and yet the one place in Europe you really cannot go right now. This Italian gallery is known for its collection of Renaissance art. It was designed by Giorgio Vasari himself for the de’Medicis. It has four online exhibits, which may make it appear to pale in comparison with the Olmedo and Van Gogh Museums, but these stories highlight one of its most interesting pieces: the Santa Trinita Maestà, by Cimabue. I wrote one of my first university papers on Cimabue, a mentor and precursor to Giotto who some consider the father of the Renaissance. So, I found this story quite interesting, and was excited to see if it was included in the one street view they offered. I had heard that the three Virgin and Child paintings of Cimabue, Giotto, and Duccio were placed in the same room, as all are centrepieces for triptychs. I was eager to be able to see them in all of their pixelated glory.
The Uffizi Gallery did not let me down. Though the Uffizi Gallery only has one street view, there are a plethora of works available to be viewed. Though I doubt seeing the gilding online is anything like seeing it in person, you do get a sense of the scale of these works, and their majesty (pun intended).
While nothing can get us this time back, many institutions around the world are working to create virtual experiences for free to make the mandate of “stay at home or else” less hard to bear. Celebrities have recorded videos of themselves reading children’s books so parents can put their kids in front of them while working from home, musicians are going live on Instagram and Facebook and performing concerts, and museums are uploading virtual visiting experiences. None of these are going to be the same as if they were happening in the same room as us, but they are valiant efforts to combat the boredom and despair that self-quarantine inspires, and I, for one, am thankful that people are trying.