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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.