All, Arts & Heritage

What It’s Like Visiting London’s Museums Again

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After nearly four months of being closed, museums and galleries across England were able to reopen their doors at the beginning of July. While it took the CBA Content team – me and Rachael – a month to book our return visits, it was well worth the wait.

To follow in our footsteps and see what it’s like visiting London’s museums again, read about our individual experiences below. First up is my trip to the V&A, then Rachael takes us to the Tate Modern and finally, a visit to the Queen’s House.

The V&A, South Kensington

The Victoria and Albert Museum holds a special place in my heart. I went there when I studied abroad in London in 2010. I used to spend afternoons in its National Art Library. I’ve brought my sister and mom there, who could spend the whole day in the gift shop. And before lockdown, I used to go often, with friends on Friday nights or just to walk around on my own.

So when they reopened on August 6th, I was among some of the first visitors in line. It wasn’t a planned trip, as I booked a ticket online the morning of, however that only added to the magic of the day.

Waiting to enter the V&A.

The entry process was seamless and not crowded – having a designated time slot helps everyone stay at a safe distance from others throughout their visit. Once inside, I was greeted by a lovely, facemask-donning guide. You could almost feel her excitement for being back in the museum. We were all so happy to be standing in the sculpture hall again, able to see the fantastic fashion display, ceramics, paintings and many more cherished objects.

Since only the ground floor was open, the guide explained that you could walk freely around the rooms or follow an online self-guided trail (architectural tour, Britain and the Caribbean tour and more). After talking more though, she recommended I check out her favourite rooms: the Cast Courts.

Michelangelo’s David, standing more than five metres tall in the Cast Courts.

For the next two hours, I was spellbound by the reproductions of Michelangelo’s David, Raphael’s School of Athens, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise and the huge Trajan’s column, which is displayed in two pieces as it wouldn’t fit under the 25-metre-high ceiling.

With no crowds to snake around, it was like a private step back in time. The Cast Courts transported me to Italy and the Renaissance, much like they’ve been doing for Londoners since 1873.

The mosaic floor, nicknamed ‘Opus Criminale’, between the Cast Courts.

The best part? Spending most of my visit in these two magnificent rooms and not rushing to see something else. Stopping to learn about why reproductions of art are important and how they influence artists today. Noticing the mosaic floor between the courts for the first time and reading about the women convicts who built it. My first museum trip after lockdown is one I will never forget: quiet, eye-opening and enchanting.

Tate Modern, Bankside

Despite museums beginning to reopen from the start of July, it’s taken me a little while to ease back into visiting. I was waiting to hear some feedback from fellow culture-lovers on London’s museums’ procedures so I could make my mind up on how safe it was to go back.

After reading some glowing reviews, and seeing photos of amazingly empty galleries on Instagram, I decided to take the plunge at the Tate Modern. While my experience will hopefully help ease any worries about the safety of visiting galleries and museums, remember we are still in a pandemic: wear a mask, keep your distance, and only do what you feel comfortable doing — it’s okay if you’re not ready to make a visit!

Kara Walker's Fons Americanus sculpture
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus (2019)

Upon arrival at the Tate Modern you’ll need to enter through the Turbine Hall entrance. This is actually something of a bonus: you’ll get to see Kara Walker’s impressive sculpture Fons Americanus right away! You’ll show your e-ticket for your allocated time-slot (free for the main collection, but must be booked in advance) at the entrance, where there’s also a hand sanitiser dispenser so you can clean up before you head in.

Staff and visitors need to wear a face mask at all times, and it was great to see this religiously adhered to throughout my visit. A one-way system has been arranged through the galleries, which didn’t feel unnatural or restrictive. You’d most likely follow that route on an ordinary visit and it was a great encouragement to explore side rooms you might otherwise have missed. It also incentivises you to spend more time with the art in a room before moving on since you can’t double-back to see it again.

Evelyne Axell's Valentine painting
Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966)

The gallery was a little busier than I expected for a Monday morning, but there was still more than enough space to socially distance while enjoying the exhibitions. There’s no time limit on your visit so you can stay as long as you want, but Tate is strict on arrival times. Don’t turn up too early for your time slot or you’ll be asked to wait outside.

The good news is that, unlike some other galleries, it isn’t hard to get a ticket. I booked on the morning of my visit and still had my pick of time slots, so it’s a great option for a spontaneous gallery trip!

Yinka Shonibare's The British Library installation
Yinka Shonibare, The British Library (2014)

I shared a few highlights over on Instagram — I was particularly enthralled by Yinka Shonibare’s The British Library, and Igor Grubić’s film installation East Side Story (not pictured).

Overall, this was a fantastic way to ease back into the museum world post-lockdown. I felt safe, relaxed and confident that the experience was well-managed by the Tate team.

Queen’s House, Greenwich

After a successful visit to the V&A, I was excited to plan my next art-filled adventure. The Queen’s House in Greenwich had recently reopened with a rare reunion of the Armada Portraits, the three surviving portraits of Queen Elizabeth I after defeating the Spanish Armada.

The exhibition, Faces of a Queen, opened briefly before lockdown and luckily returned for a few weeks in August and September. Having never been to this classically-designed gallery before, I quickly realised the house contains a lot more art and historical significance than I imagined.

Walking up to the Queen’s House in Greenwich Park.

The building itself is an architectural masterpiece. Walking up to the gallery entrance – which was virtually empty on this August Bank Holiday – was a painting in itself.

Once inside, all visitors follow a one-way system, beginning with an impressive collection of art by Van Dyck, Reynolds, Canaletto and more. Since the entry times are staggered, there were never more than six people in a room at a time. It felt like another private tour. It was magical.

Faces of a Queen exhibition at the Queen’s House.

We got to see the Armada Portraits after a wander around the Great Hall. A very welcoming tour guide, wearing a mask and standing a safe distance away, told us about the iconic portraits and how amazing it is to see them next to each other for the first time in history (the other two were on loan from Woburn Abbey and the National Portrait Gallery).

The rest of my visit was filled with royal family portraits, maritime sculptures and to my pleasant surprise, contemporary art pieces. In fact, it was in a room full of Stuart style paintings that I saw my first Kehinde Wiley (Wiley is the American artist who painted Obama’s portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery).

Ship of Fools by Kehinde Wiley.

Stepping out into Greenwich Park after the Queen’s House visit, I felt London’s majestic embrace. Seeing and experiencing the city’s art and heritage again had restored a sense of adventure, wonder and discovery.

All, Art, Community, Content Creation, Culture

Experiencing Art and Culture in Lockdown: What’s Changed and How Will We Adapt?

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Before lockdown, we might have filled our Saturday afternoons with a trip to a museum after brunch with friends, ending the day in a South Kensington pub to discuss the exhibition we’d seen.

Now the galleries, museums, cafes, pubs, and other weekend hangout spots are closed due to COVID-19, we’ve had to make our own fun when it comes to experiencing art and culture.

Fortunately, virtual tours, webinars, podcasts and video series allow us to get our culture fix from home. Museums and galleries across the world are working hard to bring cultural content into our living rooms, keeping that connection with art and history alive.

As we start to look towards the end of lockdown, it’s becoming clear that our relationship with museums will look different for a while yet — potentially changing for good. So how have we adapted and what will art and culture experiences look like in the future? Here are a few ways we see people enjoying and engaging with art, history and heritage in the months and years to come.

Enjoying culture from home

Some gallerists, museum curators, artists, tour guides and culture vultures have seized this opportunity, offering online material to satisfy our cultural cravings. The British Museum, for example, now has nearly 4.5 million objects and 1.9 million photographs in its digital archive, after adding 300,000 new images since their doors closed. The Museum’s online traffic is up 120% on last year, highlighting the importance of a strong digital presence to complement its physical collection.

The British Museum is the world’s largest indoor space on Google Street View.

Google Arts & Culture has been a fantastic resource for exploring museums and galleries around the world during lockdown. Using hi-res image technology, you can wander round an exhibition, looking at high-resolution images of famous artworks and artefacts from your sofa.

You can browse artworks by time period, colour or museum collection, and the platform has editorial pieces highlighting weekly favourites, hidden details, and stories behind pieces of art.

Thanks to Google Arts & Culture, museum curators, historians and art experts, we’ve actually been treated to more content than we might have experienced during a physical visit. Podcasts, mini online festivals and virtual tours offer expert insights, stimulating conversation and a behind-the-scenes look at museums and historical sites.

One such museum creating content waves is the Courtauld Gallery in London. They’ve been hosting an ‘Open Hour’ each Thursday in May: a new, free digital events series with talks by industry leaders, explorations of individual works and live poetry readings.

With live-stream events, conferences and Q&A’s being offered widely for free, it’s easier than ever to join the conversation around art and culture. It only takes a quick hashtag search on Twitter – #MuseumFromHome, #GettyMuseumChallenge, #MuseumMomentOfZen – to see fun, helpful and inspiring updates in real-time.

The power of virtual connections

Since mid-March, the cultural sector’s physical presence has been greatly diminished. At the same time, unsurprisingly, virtual engagement has skyrocketed.

This digital connection has helped fill a void during isolation. It’s provided a means to interact with people and places near and far. More than that, it’s given us the unique opportunity to get to know and learn from museum curators, gallerists and art experts.

Through video and social platforms, they share their favourite artefacts, uncover the story behind paintings and discuss the power of art to move us, entertain us and transport us to another place and another time.

Barnaby Wright speaking at the first Courtauld Gallery ‘Open Hour’

Virtual museum tours aren’t anything new, but there’s been a surge in their popularity since the lockdown began. They’ve allowed us to continue to see and experience art even while doors are closed. And now that, in light of this crisis, we know online tours can be done in a fulfilling, informative way, they could play a vital role in the future of museums.

Online experiences allow people to explore exhibitions and displays that fascinate them regardless of where they’re located. They open up history and culture to all sectors of society: those with disabilities who find some museums and galleries difficult to access, people in rural areas who don’t live near a major exhibition, people with unusual schedules who can’t always visit during opening hours, and many more. This inclusivity and accessibility is essential to the future of the museum industry.

File:Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao (31273245344).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Fancy a visit to Bilbao’s Guggenheim? You can do it from your sofa.

Of course, nothing can truly replace a visit to a museum, experiencing culture with other people, with strangers, and seeing artefacts and art in person. But this renewed online connection will undoubtedly change the way we experience museums for a while yet.

How will museums look post-COVID-19?

In some countries around the world, museum and gallery doors are beginning to reopen, testing the waters for socially distanced visits. At the Brandenburg State Museum for Modern Art in Cottbus, Germany, which reopened on 1st May, lines on the floor in the museum foyer mark the advised distance between visitors, and the total number of visitors at one time is limited to 100.

Neon tape marks social distancing for ticket purchases at the Gropius Bau museum in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In Brussels, Belgium, safety measures planned for reopenings in mid-May include one-way visitor traffic, a quota of hourly admission numbers and a halting of audio guides for hygiene reasons. Sensible suggestions — and they could give an indication of what to expect in the UK once we’re at the stage of reopening museums.

Across the pond, a ‘drive-by art’ exhibition in Long Island, NY last weekend displayed another way we can recreate the gallery experience outside. The works of 52 artists were displayed on front lawns, fences, driveways and pavements, with local residents turning up in their cars to see the exhibition.

The sculptor Monica Banks winked at the signature hedges of the Hamptons with “Brains in Our Arms,”  steel wool octopuses positioned in her own hedge.

Monica Banks’ steel wool octopus sculptures ‘Brains in Our Arms’, in her hedge in Long Island. (Photo: Bryan Derballa for The New York Times)

The organiser, artist and theorist Warren Neidich, is planning another exhibition in Los Angeles later in the month, also based around the question of: “how do we show empathy and solidarity in this new age?”. Whether it’s east London street art or front garden sculptures, community art is something we can all enjoy, safely, while social distancing. 

What about the theme of upcoming exhibitions? Interestingly, the chronicling of this historic pandemic by museums has already begun, with the V&A, Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery collecting items and photographs of life in lockdown.

Impacting almost every aspect of daily life, it’s likely that COVID-19 will be the subject of artistic and historical exhibitions fairly contemporaneously. The Brandenburg State Museum for Modern Art, for example, has reopened with a video about solutions devised by history’s artists and architects for personal protection in public, such as Weegee’s ‘Boy Meets Girl – From Mars’ (1955).

“Boy meets girl - from Mars” by Weegee (Arthur Fellig), ca. 1955, New York (NY), gelatin silver print, image: 8 1/2 x 7 3/8 in. Accession number: 16855.1993. Credit: Bequest of Wilma Wilcox, 1993. © Getty Images/ICP

Weegee’s ‘Boy Meets Girl – From Mars’ (1955)
(Photo: Bequest of Wilma Wilcox, 1993. © Getty Images/ICP

As we tentatively look towards the end of lockdown and the reopening of museums and galleries, it’s difficult to say what the ‘new normal’ will be for the cultural industries. If current trends are anything to go by, the future of museums involves socially distanced visits with reduced numbers. On the business side, a strong digital strategy has and will be more important than ever.

People are still hungry for art, history and heritage: virtual tours, informative content and expert insights continue to keep cultural experiences intact. For museums, now is a great opportunity to reevaluate the accessibility of culture: digital exhibitions have the potential to open up the world of art and history to vast sectors of society that might otherwise miss out. If there is a silver lining in this, let it be a celebration of culture made available to everyone.