Virtual museum tours provide substitute for in-person visits

by Lucy Turnipseed | 4/23/20 2:10am

Virtual tours of national parks, Instagram Live concerts from celebrities and Broadway shows streaming online are all examples of the new forms of entertainment people have been consuming since the country went on lockdown. Among these options, the virtual museum tour offers an experience that is both self-directed and artistic. 24/7, 365 days a year, you can see selections from some of the world’s best museums from your home, either through a program of the museum’s own or through an offshoot of the all-seeing Google.

After discovering the existence of these tours from my grandmother’s Facebook page, I decided to give them a shot. At first I was skeptical, thinking there was no way the virtual tours could adequately recreate an in-person museum visit. However, I realized the point of the tours was not to make you feel like you were there, but to provide you with a meaningful substitute.

I encountered two main types of virtual tours. Some aim to simulate reality, while others present an abstracted version of a tour that prioritizes the objects in the museum’s collection and their meaning.

To start, I checked out some of the “virtual reality” tours. I appreciated the emptiness of being in a gallery on my own, able to roam without interruption and get as close to any work as I wanted to. However, virtual reality platforms can be tricky to navigate, and you may not always be able to tell what you’re looking at.

For example, strolling through New York’s Guggenheim Museum with Google Street View, I had the luxury to stop and admire the iconic staircase for however long I wanted. With no pesky tourists blocking my view, I could take an unadulterated look at the art — which is nearly impossible to do in person. There are also preset tabs at the bottom of the screen for many of the collection’s works, so users can easily navigate to some of the most well-known pieces.

The quality is high, but the angles used to capture images of some pieces are strange, showing some objects in a way people would never actually view them in real life. 

Additionally, getting around the museum often tripped me up. There are preset places where Street View suggests you click, and if you try to make your own path you often end up in the corner struggling to turn around and regain your bearings. 

The information plaques were also impossible to read. Though Google tells you the name of the work and the artist, you must conduct your own independent research to understand the significance of what you are looking at.

While feeling a bit “physically” disoriented in trying to get around the museum space, I was also left mentally unsatisfied. Another virtual reality tour I tried was the Louvre’s; there was more context, meaning I could read the information plaques, and there were more explanatory virtual materials, but I experienced the same disorientation as I did in the Guggenheim tour and ended up getting turned around frequently.

Trying out the other type of tour — the type that is more abstracted — I found some online exhibitions I appreciated.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam curated two online exhibits that users can handily page through. Each painting has by its side an informative caption that tells a piece of the story the curators wish to highlight through their grouping of specific works. Additionally, their collection is accessible online and sorted into categories.

I enjoyed viewing these exhibitions; although I didn’t experience the architecture or gallery space of the Van Gogh Museum, I did get a curated guide through select works of the collection that gave me insight into the world of Vincent Van Gogh.

The British Museum, based in London, presents its tour as a timeline sorted by theme and geographical region. The content of the tour lives up to the initial impression of the space-age aesthetics of the platform. 

Each object is represented by a node, interconnected in a web of objects fitting a certain theme and spread out across time and continents, that users can click on. Each work has a slide with a description, an audio version of the information on the slide, ways to share the slide through social media or email, a map that shows where the object was made and three photos of “related objects” that users can explore.

The way the British Museum condensed information into an easily digestible, sharable slide and offered ways to dive down deeper into the virtual rabbit hole with its suggested works section revealed how thoughtful the museum was about capturing a virtual audience. 

The tour is definitely made for digital consumption, mimicking aspects of social media and allowing users to easily jump around the collection. And, as a bonus, all the images included in the object-driven tours are consistently high quality and shown from a logical angle. 

Although I enjoyed the virtual reality tours, part of me was reminded that I couldn’t be there in person and that navigating through the galleries online was a less-desirable second to actually walking in a museum. 

That is why I enjoyed the object-driven tours more. The online exhibits and interactive collections maps were designed specifically for digital use. And though, yes, it would be better to see those objects in person as well, these experiences are specifically created for the internet. It feels as if there still are unique experiences that can be had during a time when most are confined to their homes.

Besides making friendship bracelets and tie-dyeing with my sister, these tours have proven to be one of my favorite ways to stay connected to the arts while self-isolating.