Walk Through the Sistine Chapel and Musee d’Orsay While in Quarantine

Shuttered until the coronavirus pandemic blows over, museums are harnessing digital platforms to launch free online tours that can banish the quarantine boredom

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From left to right: Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earrin', the Sistine Chapel, and a painting by Yoo Youngkuk.
From left to right: Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earrin', the Sistine Chapel and a painting by Yoo Youngkuk. The coronavirus lockdown doesn't mean you can't visit museums.Credit: AP / RPBaiao / Shutterstock / Yoo Youngkuk Art Foundation
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

It was to be a season marked by a profusion of new exhibitions that would each attract tens of thousands of art lovers. After the Leonardo de Vinci exhibition at the Louvre and the Toulouse Lautrec show in Paris’ Grand Palais, which both ended recently, two other major masters' shows were up next: one in Rome to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael, and another in Madrid celebrating the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death.

But as with so very many aspects of our lives today, the coronavirus interfered with the best-laid plans, and imposed a clampdown on museums the world over. But a great number have risen to the challenge and designed a variety of digital interfaces that make it possible to visit an exhibition – without leaving your house.

A majority of museums in Southeast Asia, Europe and of course the United States have YouTube channels enabling art lovers to see past exhibitions, and websites that enable them to take a virtual tours of new shows.

These digital tools are a significant part of a huge international effort, in the age of the coronavirus, to make art and culture accessible to the general public, as Carolyn Christov Bakargiev, director of the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin, Italy, told the Artnet News magazine earlier this month. She reports that she has been working 18 hours a day to make the museum’s collections accessible, because it’s a “public duty” to do so.

To that end, Castello di Rivoli has developed what it calls Digital Cosmos, offering free visual, guided tours for children and adults, featuring such works as “Novecento,” an embalmed horse, by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, according to Artnet.

Other art institutions in Italy have also intensified their internet activities. Florence’s renowned Uffizi Gallery, for example, showcases works on display via Instagram and Facebook, and offers online tours, including of usually off-limits rooms.

“Museums have been forced to close their doors, but art doesn’t stop,” says Uffizi director Eike Schmidt.

At Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale Museum, the staff had invested much effort and time preparing a huge exhibition to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the great Renaissance artist Raphael. The show opened on March 5 – but closed three days later. All is not lost, however, because many of the works can be viewed on the museum’s YouTube channel.

Similarly, the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid exhibition marking the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt – including 80 drawings and 16 prints – opened mid-February, and then the museum closed its doors, too. Now lovers of the great Dutch master can see his works as well as others' inthe Thyssen-Bornemisza collection via the museum's website.

Google and Guggenheim

The art world has actually been working for years to exhibit (and sell) works of art in the virtual dimension, and is thus fairly well prepared for the coronavirus era.

Google’s art platform, for example, offers what can only be described as endless possibilities. For example, art lovers can "walk" up the ramps of the famous Guggenheim Museum in New York without leaving their computers. Similar tours are conducted in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The latter’s staff have even created a presentation that tells the story of the museum’s construction – in the former Gare d’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station.

The virtual tour of Amsterdam’s famed Rijksmuseum boasts stops at Rembrandt’s masterpieces “The Jewish Bride” and “The Night Watch,” and at Vermeer’s famous “The Milkmaid.” Google seems to have devoted special attention to that 17th-century Dutch painter, including forays to other museums featuring his iconic works, among them the Mauritshuis in The Hague, home of “The Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

Of course, Google’s art platform highlights the works of thousands of other artists, including Klimt, Van Gogh, Degas, Gauguin, Seurat, Kandinsky and so on. Among other things it teaches you six new facts about Claude Monet, one of the founders of Impressionism.

In addition to and sometimes overlapping Google's options many of the museums housing such masterpieces and others from different periods are showcasing them via their own, easily accessible digital formats, among them the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its website boasts 84,000 paintings and other artworks.

Another rich and outstanding website is that of the British Museum, which is also shuttered. Its virtual tour offers a trove of information relating to innumerable discoveries on five continents, from prehistoric eras to the present. Each exhibit is accompanied by a written text and audio information.

Among the museums using digital technology are institutions in areas that we surely will not be able to visit any time soon – for example, in Italy and Spain, both exceptionally hard hit by the pandemic.

On the informative, comprehensive website of the Vatican museums, it’s possible to amble from gallery to gallery and see the breathtaking works in the four Raphael rooms (which were decorated by the painter and his students), to tour a contemporary art exhibition and, of course, to be awed by Michelangelo's magnificent Sistine Chapel.

North of Barcelona, in the town of Figueres, is a museum devoted to surrealist Salvador Dalí. The museum there, too, has harnessed virtual reality technology to allow viewers to wander about its gallery spaces and enjoy his works.

Further afield (geographically, at least), the National Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art in South Korea features a virtual tour allowing you to get a particularly close look at the colorful works in a 2016 exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Korean artist Yoo Youngkuk, a pioneer of abstract and modern art in his country.

Not only have museums and art galleries around the world been forced to close their doors due to the coronavirus crisis: Art fairs are also being cancelled or postponed, and dealers and collectors are trying to adapt to the new situation. The Art Basel art fair, for one, launched a platform last week that offers “online viewing rooms” featuring the participation of 233 private galleries.

“They have all risen to the challenge,” according to the Art Basel website. “Each has chosen a curatorial concept for their virtual room as individual as a fingerprint, with the added bonus of being unconstrained by the dimensions of a traditional white cube.”

‘Muses aren’t silent’

Israeli museums have been forced to join their counterparts abroad, announcing earlier this month that they too would shut their doors until the pandemic is over. They also boast digital platforms and websites that enable art lovers to enjoy their treasures from their armchairs.

The Israel Museum, for example, offers a wealth of online information and images relating to its exhibitions and collections, including a Google tour and designated sites showcasing past art and archaeological exhibitions including “Herod the Great” and “Pharoah in Canaan.” Among other online possibilities, Shirly Ben-Dor Evian guides viewers in a video tour spotlighting the new show she's curated, “Emoglyphs: Picture-Writing from Hieroglyphs to the Emoj.

Museum director Ido Bruno notes that because the process of digitization has been going on for some two decades, the art world is relatively prepared and can quickly make its contents accessible to the public.

Following the closure imposed on the Israel Museum and all cultural institutions around the country due to the epidemic, he says, “We realized that we would have to change our work procedures, and we’re creating new materials and designated sub-websites, so that the museum will be accessible to the general public during this complex period.”

Asked to elaborate, Bruno says that “we want to conduct tours of temporary exhibitions, a tour with the curator or a gallery discussion, in which, via a digital platform, we will enable people to ask questions from home. We want it to be more alive, interactive – not to make do with a passive tour.”

For its part, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art also operates several digital platforms, in addition to its recently launched website. One virtual tour spotlights “The Cosmos,” a new installation by Yonatan Vinitzky, now on display in the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion. You can also watch events organized in conjunction with exhibitions, such as an encounter with Tal Broitman, assistant curator of the current show “Keren Russo: Myths of the Near Future,” or Raymond Pettibon's exhibition.

There are also 170 clips onthe museum’s Vimeo video platform, which include gallery discussions and lectures by artists and experts about past exhibitions.

Tania Coen-Uzzielli, executive director of the Tel Aviv Museum, sees the present period as an opportunity to update the museum’s digital platforms.

“This is the time to close the gaps,” she says, “to film what we haven’t managed to film yet, to document exhibitions in 360 degrees and to create all kinds of platforms surrounding the collections. We’ve just finished filming a virtual tour of the new show, ‘Jeff Koons: Absolute Value/From the Collection of Marie and Jose Mugrabi,’ which will be uploaded soon, and we are posting activities for children.”

Coen-Uzielli says that despite the uncertainty that prevails in our lives at present, the Tel Aviv Museum is trying to maintain a sense of continuity.

“They say that when the cannons are heard the muses are silent,” she says. “We’re in a kind of war, but the muses aren’t silent.”

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