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Virtually yours

Just as the world locked down, some of its most highly acclaimed cultural spaces opened up online, allowing us to travel to see the art wonders of the world from our living rooms. Millie Bruce-Watt explores the virtues of virtual art tours.

Although lockdown physically confined us to the four walls of our homes, technology broadened our horizons like never before. Thanks to interactive 360-degree videos and full ‘walk-around’ tours, we were able to visit all corners of the globe without actually leaving the sofa. We were given the opportunity to visit first-class exhibitions and wander through some of the world’s most famous cultural spaces while sipping our morning coffee.

The announcement of free virtual museum tours was unquestionably one of the few saving graces of lockdown. From the Natural History Museum in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Korea, the world’s artistic talent was at our fingertips. These virtual art tours offered us an escape during the lowest points of isolation. They could disconnect us from our phones, stop us from endless vacant searching and scrolling on the web and remove us from earshot of the news, if only for a brief while.

Thanks to interactive 360-degree videos and full ‘walk-around’ tours, we were able to visit all corners of the globe without actually leaving the sofa

With over 6,000 years worth of creative treasures at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, virtual visitors are able to bounce from Neolithic clay figures to Van Gogh’s Irises in one fell swoop. A few Google searches later, you could be walking through the rich sites of the Vatican, revelling in the wonders of the Sistine Chapel, and then, enjoying lunch in Bilbao, exploring the Guggenheim’s collection of post-war American and European paintings and sculptures – Rothko, Holzer, Koons and Kapoor all featuring in the gallery.

The tours also allow us to explore the spaces in minute detail, a luxury that is rarely available even when we’ve paid to be there in person. The Mona Lisa is very often viewed from a distance, over a crowd of bobbing heads. But now, thanks to the powers that be – namely Zoom and its interactive relations – we’re able to visit the Louvre and explore its artistic delights with friends that are sitting hundreds of miles away, something that in real life would not be financially plausible or physically possible.

The Museu de Arte de São Paulo in Brazil has one of the broadest historical collections available in its virtual gallery, with works spanning the 14th century through to the 20th. Here the museum’s paintings have been suspended in the air around the open-plan space so that you feel as though you are standing in one of the museum’s great halls.

Closer to home, our much-loved and missed museums, galleries and festivals also supplied us with much-needed entertainment during isolation. The Holburne, Victoria Art Gallery and The Roman Baths were just a few of the city’s popular spaces that adapted to their situations, and brought creative workshops, Q&As and online exhibitions to our living rooms. The Bath Festival also powered on ahead, despite the sad news of its cancellation this year. Ensuring we got our culture fix, it compiled virtual weekend guides, which consisted of must-see gigs, concerts, operas and theatre shows to keep us going through the quiet times.

The Museu de Arte de São Paulo’s paintings have been suspended in the air around the open-plan space so that you feel as though you are standing in one of the museum’s great halls

Some have argued that the aesthetics of the virtual tours have taken precedence over the sharing of knowledge, with digital experiences sometimes finding it difficult to share the history of the art and explain why pieces are there – something that museums have worked hard to improve over the years. And yet the future of the digital experience is intriguing. Although our 13-inch laptop screens may not fully convey the sheer size of Michelangelo’s 17-foot David, which incontestably adds to the grandeur of the piece, the virtual tours have given us a taste of what’s on offer, perhaps enticing us to visit once lockdown passes. Such is their power that they may inspire us to venture out of our normal choice of holiday destinations and explore places that we never thought of visiting.

We did not trade visiting museums in for virtual tours due to the lack of will. We were simply looking for beauty in this beast and, for that reason, the virtual tours have provided solace at unparalleled value

These are, as we all know, ‘unprecedented times’. We did not trade visiting museums in for virtual tours due to the lack of will or reliance on technology – we were simply looking for beauty in this beast and, for that reason, the virtual tours have provided solace at unparalleled value. In the next few months and years as museums adapt to public health guidelines, the digitised tours will work best when they become an expansion of the museum, telling more complex stories and attracting audiences for their own purposes. Over the endless weeks of lockdown, the tours allowed us to bond with galleries in our own back yard and reconnect with those that are further afield. Ultimately, it is thanks to the virtual tours and digital experiences that we we now have a mile-long bucket list of cultural excursions to plan.

Explore Bath…
• B&NES Virtual Library; bathnes.gov.uk
• The Roman Baths; romanbaths.co.uk
• Thermae Bath Spa; thermaebathspa.com
• Victoria Art Gallery; victoriagal.org.uk
• The Fashion Museum and Assembly Rooms; fashionmuseum.co.uk
• Savouring Bath; savouringbath.com

Travel the world…
• J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; getty.edu/museum
• Vatican Museums, Rome; museivaticani.va
• Natural History Museum, London; nhm.ac.uk
• Museum of Art of São Paulo, Assis Chateaubriand (MASP), São Paulo; masp.org.br/en
• Guggenheim, Bilbao; guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en
• Uffizi Gallery, Florence; uffizi.it/en
• Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; rijksmuseum.nl/en
• Musée d’Orsay, Paris; m.musee-orsay.fr/en
• Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; guggenheim.org
• Picasso Museum, Barcelona; courtyard.museupicassobcn.org
• National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, South Korea; mmca.go.kr/eng

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