COVID-19 and Social Distancing: What Museums Are Doing to Bring Their Collections to Audiences Stuck at Home

Contributed by Emma Lavoie

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus. One recommendation included in these guidelines was for “social distancing” – a term referring to the conscious effort to reduce close contact between people and hopefully hinder the community transmission of the virus.

While schools, companies, and various workplaces determine the best possible options to both adhere to these guidelines as well as provide the appropriate support to their staff, students, and customers – many have chosen to close their doors. Some institutions and companies have shut down indefinitely, while various schools and universities have moved to remote teaching, where students complete their classes online and stay at home. Universities and colleges all over the country have moved courses to online platforms. Undergrads are being told to move out of their dorms and off campus for the remainder of the semester.

Phillips Academy (PA), a New England boarding school and the Peabody’s parent institution has instituted similar measures, following the directives issued by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

A local restaurant closes their doors in light of “on-site eating” bans over COVID-19

Now many would say they like working from home and actually get more done, but it is not the case for everyone. The Peabody staff are doing what they can to continue their museum work from home. For the Peabody collections team, it is very difficult to continue much of the work they do every day at the institution, as much of the collections and material cannot leave the building. While inventory, rehousing, and cataloguing of the collection is put on hold, our staff is editing object photographs, digitizing documents, transcribing collection ledgers, writing blogs (like this one), and more.

My dog, Rourke, is very happy to have me working from home!

Outside of my remote-work, I am wondering like many others who are stuck at home – what else can I do with the rest of my week? By being at home, we miss out on the daily interactions with our coworkers, colleagues, and classmates. Our experiences with each other fuel our creativity and critical thinking, and are important for much needed collaborative efforts. Through “social distancing” we are recommended to not take part in every day, public activities such as eating out, going to the store, or visiting a museum or historical site with our friends and family.

But don’t let social distancing doom your week and weekend! Museums have found a way to bring some of their collections to their visitors. So worry no more! You can view that Van Gough from the couch!

I was happy to enjoy a little culture and education in my off-time while at home. According to Fast Company, Google Arts & Culture has teamed up with over 500 museums and galleries around the world to bring virtual tours and online exhibits to a global audience.

Some of the museums highlighted by Google Arts & Culture include the British Museum in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, France, the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, Mexico, and various historical parks and sites.

Design of the Musée d’Orsay in 1979
Image courtesy of A.C.T. Architecture and the Musée d’Orsay

The first museum I “visited” was the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, France. As a student, I had visited this museum on a class trip many years ago and I was interested in the exhibits they provided online. This exhibit was a detailed history on the building of the museum titled, From Station to the Renovated Musée d’Orsay. This endeavor was a groundbreaking project for Paris as it was the first time an industrial building had been restored to accommodate a major museum. The virtual exhibit showcases the early building plans and images of the Orsay train station and hotel from the 1900s as well as images of the museum and its galleries after the renovation project in the early 2000s. Explore this virtual exhibit here!

I visited a second virtual exhibition, this time, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The exhibition is called, Fashioning a Nation. This exhibit features drawings from the Index of American Design, a collection of more than 18,000 watercolor pictures of American decorative art objects. This exhibition explores the American fashions from 1740 to 1895, giving insight into the character and quality of American life from the colonial period to the Industrial Revolution. Click here to explore this exhibit!

3D model of the Balcony House at Mesa Verde National Park
Image courtesy of CyArk and Open Heritage – Google Arts & Culture

If museums aren’t your thing, explore a historic site! Open Heritage – Google Arts & Culture offers iconic locations in 3D, using 3D modeling techniques for you to explore. You can learn about the tools of digital preservation and how people all over the world are preserving our shared history. One site I visited was the Mesa Verde National Park. This site is home to Native American cliff dwellings in southern Colorado that span over 700 years of Native American history (600-1300 CE). An expedition was led by CyArk in February 2017. CyArk is a nonprofit organization that specializes in the digital documentation and preservation of historic sites. The organization documented the Balcony House at Mesa Verde using Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) and terrestrial photogrammetry. Combining these two technologies is what creates the 3D model of a site. To explore the 3D model of the Balcony House at Mesa Verde, click here!

Unfortunately, not all popular museums and galleries are included on Google Arts & Culture’s collection website, but some museums are offering virtual tours and online visits on their own websites, such as the Louvre in Paris, France. To see more of Google Arts & Culture’s collection of virtual museums and exhibits, visit their collection website. Explore and enjoy your visit!

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