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The virtues and vices of virtual museum tours

9 June 2020

In the Rijksmuseum I find myself wandering off from the paintings. I click my way down the brightly lit corridors to see if I can ride the lift. I can’t. The same mood takes me at the British Museum. I linger in the gift shop. There’s a sale on. In the cafe, beers are in the fridge, but no one is around to put the cakes out. On a whim I click on the sidebar and drop down to the basement, finding myself looking at a fire extinguisher and a sign for the members’ cloakroom. ‘Virtual tour’ seems a rather grand term for these lonely digital ‘experiences’. Tour implies guidance and direction; instead I have an overwhelming sense of aimlessness.

Virtual tours of museums and galleries are among the many edifying home activities offered to us during lockdown to replace going to the pub. We are encouraged to travel to hitherto unexplored arts institutions, or revisit favourites in our pyjamas. Google Street View powers many of these virtual tours: some are made in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture, while smaller organisations do it themselves using Google’s technology by mounting a 360-degree camera on to a smartphone. Several institutions have designed their own, while others have transformed themselves into computer games.

Most of these tours have been made in the past five years to support in-person visits. They helped make museums and galleries more accessible and were useful for planning school trips or enabling individuals with additional requirements to scope out their visits. In this capacity, they are far more useful than the paper map you pay a quid for on arrival. Now though, in the absence of real-life exhibitions to recommend, some media outlets are suggesting them as a substitute for the experience itself.

The recent fetishisation of ‘experiences’, the consumption of places rather than of things, has led to some museums privileging their buildings over their collections, and this tendency is borne out in the priorities of many virtual museums. It is nearly 50 years since John Berger popularised Walter Benjamin’s description of the aura of artworks in his television series Ways of Seeing, positing that the loss of a sense of place and time was the greatest failure of photographic reproductions. Though virtual tours offer a unique experience – an encounter with an object in the place it happens to be – their efforts to share a sense of place and time with visitors sometimes risk eclipsing the object entirely.

As I navigate cultural spaces using a tool designed to map streets, it’s hard not to feel that architecture is taking precedence over the sharing of knowledge. What tends to be missing are the explanations of why objects are where they are, which many museums have worked hard to highlight in recent years. Ethnographic museums fare worst on virtual tours. The Google Arts & Culture tour of the Musée Quai Branly makes the museum feel like a well-lit hoard. A side room of 17th-century paintings from the Ethiopian Coptic church of Abbas Antonios cloisters the digital visitor in a quasi-sacred space, but this aesthetically pleasing experience omits the violent history of how the 12 paintings were taken away during the notorious Mission Dakar-Djibouti, the ethnographic expedition led by Marcel Griaule through French colonies in Africa in 1931–33, in which many artworks and sacred objects were acquired by theft, blackmail and bribery. Far from challenging partial or colonial representations, the Quai Branly’s virtual tour reinforces them.

Room 6 of the Courtauld Art Gallery in its virtual tour.

The visual experience can vary greatly. In contrast with the pixelated gloom of the Google Street View tour of the Hermitage, the photography in the Courtauld Gallery’s bespoke virtual tour is exceptional. Commissioned to record the galleries before their temporary closure while the building is renovated, it allows you to zoom in to see the texture of each brushstroke in Édouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882). But I soon realise that my digital self is in fact wearing concrete shoes: I have to stay in the middle of the room. Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863–68) will always be a trapezoid however much I tap away at my keyboard.

It is when a building has a significance that goes beyond mere architectural display that virtual tours come into their own. The Anne Frank House, for instance, pairs the spaces you can navigate with descriptions from her diary. We see the annexe through her eyes. When you are at the attic window, the only one at which Frank could daydream as all others were blacked out, you are presented with the quotation: ‘As long as this still exists […] I cannot be sad.’

I could stay in the Museo Frida Kahlo all afternoon. As you are guided around the Casa Azul by pastel-blue arrows and a candy-coloured map, it is impossible not be drawn in by the details: a cushion embroidered with despierta corazon dormido (‘wake up sleeping heart’); Diego Rivera’s photograph propped up on a box of Lefranc pastels; and a vitrine of plastic figurines. As our world shrinks to our domestic spaces perhaps the intimacy of a house museum can resonate where grander museums leave us cold. Or perhaps this is just property porn (I am also googling yellow floor paint in a separate tab).

The technology behind these virtual experiences owes much to the most popular video game of the 1990s: Myst. The game asks us to adopt the character of the ‘Stranger’ and solve puzzles that open up new fantasy landscapes to explore. Myst has something that many museum virtual experiences lack: a sense of direction, agency and human contact. In his influential article, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’ (1988) Tony Bennett applied Foucault’s analysis of ‘disciplinary institutions’ such as asylums and prisons to the architecture of the Victorian museum, revealing museums as spaces of constant observation, in which visitors watch each other and gallery staff watch visitors. Surveillance stifles our giggles and ensures that, by and large, we remain on the right side of a barrier. These codified behaviours are the reason why many people find museums unwelcoming. But the people-watching can be part of the fun. It’s the feeling of being somewhere. Wandering around an empty virtual museum can feel less like an exciting after-hours experience and more like the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.

Transforming the museum into a game has been one solution to the loneliness of the virtual tour, often uneasily redesigned as a scholarly form of leisure or as a leisurely form of education. Plumping for the former approach, in April this year the Getty released an ‘Art Generator’ for players to upload chosen artworks from the museum’s collection to Animal Crossing, a Nintendo game created by Katsuya Eguchi. To a large extent, this functions like the software used by museums to design exhibitions, with which gallery spaces are mapped to scale and curators can furnish their virtual dolls’ houses with digitised artworks. This development has been welcomed by designers and art handlers alike as it promises the eventual demise of the fragile cardboard model with its unreliable Blu-Tack and illegible notations.

Prisme 7, a game released by the Centre Pompidou in May 2020, rewards players with artworks from the museum's collection

Prisme 7, a game released by the Centre Pompidou in May 2020, rewards players with artworks from the museum’s collection. Courtesy Centre Pompidou, Paris

In May, the Centre Pompidou released its first video game, Prisme 7. This requires you to adopt a swirl of dots as an avatar and move through a series of spatial challenges on the hunt for craggy blue diamonds that reward you with artworks. Level one is a witty take on being in a museum: if you touch a barrier then you lose ‘creative energy’. Less amusingly, only male artists are included on the first level, a sadder reminder of being in many museum spaces. As I struggle through the maze inspired by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ inside-out architecture, I’m reminded of getting lost at the Pompidou when I first lived in Paris. After 30 minutes I had slunk away having not seen any art, my 18-year-old self too mortified to ask anyone where the galleries actually were. Level two appears deeply indebted to Vera Molnár, whose painting Identiques mais différents (2010) is one of the prizes. We are asked to imagine ourselves as drawing machines, as she did in her early computer drawings, and have to fathom the predetermined rules that allow us to make patterns. But as the game continues, the already fragile links between the artworks, the Pompidou and the game dissipate. The artworks become something to be acquired in a rush rather than to be looked at.

Interactive websites are another platform for sharing an institution’s collection. History Connected is the product of a relationship summarised by its URL – britishmuseum.withgoogle.com – reminding us that tech giants are just as hungry for cultural capital as oil companies and banks. Together they have founded ‘The Museum of the World’. As a ‘visitor’ you can ‘jump back in time’ and make connections between objects ‘across time and space’. Information about the individual objects is richer than that provided by most online museum databases, but History Connected fails to show the strong connections implied by the infographics. The Heart Sutra of the Chuson-ji Temple in Japan and the rock art of Brandberg in Namibia are connected by a green line that fades to ochre as you dive forwards and back on a timeline stratified by continent – but what, exactly, do they have to do with one other? These opaque connections do more to mystify rather than explain new artefacts – and perpetuate the ideology of the ‘universal museum’.

Greater focus on artworks and their creators can be found in the innovations of commercial galleries, some of which have been borrowed from shopping websites. For a week in March Art Basel’s online viewing rooms recreated an art fair by hosting selling exhibitions from around the world on its website. Hauser & Wirth has been more conceptual. It has just released a virtual tour of a gallery that is yet to open and a group show that is yet to be staged: ‘Beside Itself’ at Hauser & Wirth Menorca. On the tour you jump between glowing white circles and click on grey bullseyes to reveal captions. The intimate room in which Luchita Hurtado’s Faces for Arcimbaldo (1973) hangs also contains an inviting armchair made cosy with a gorgeous throw. There is an enticing white cross floating next to it. I click and am redirected to the Hauser & Wirth shop: $1,500 for a Max Bill cashmere blanket.

In the next months and years, museums and galleries and our actions within them will need to be redesigned to protect public health. But is the hope that new audiences will access free virtual tours and then, after lockdown ends, become paying exhibition-goers little more than a pipe dream? Digitised museums are at their best when they stop trying to replicate or even replace the gallery and instead expand how we encounter art in the first place. Familiarising people with the architecture of a museum is not enough, but is turning the whole experience into a quest any better? Digital experiences need to tell more complex stories about artworks, adding to their meaning and giving new audiences a sense of belonging; both online and in real life. Gimmicky distraction can certainly be found on these museum ‘strolls’ – to use Google’s term – or through the compulsion to ‘collect’ digital artworks. But they can feel too similar to the other gameified apps and websites that compete for our attention, especially at this time. Perhaps we need to learn to look and listen slowly and carefully, rather than believing we can ‘do’ the Louvre over our morning coffee while working from home.