While excitingly going through the crown jewels in The Met Museum’s American Wing, I wonder if I could get a look at the souvenirs in the gift shop to take something back with me. I unfortunately cannot. I am met with the same experience while exploring the British Museum and the Van Gogh Museum. The experience of looking at paintings and artefacts from my computer screen in pyjamas rather seems impersonal. The enthusiasm of dressing up to explore the majesty of Art Institutions gets lost when one has to do so sitting on their sofas at home. Things are near and yet so far.
For an industry that thrives on in-person connection and networking, the lockdown has been especially hard-hitting on both Artists and Institutions. Virtual Tours, prior to the lockdown were created by many Institutes to allow better in-person access and experience of the galleries. However, during the lockdown, virtual tours became the only means of experience that people could have access to. Several Institutions designed their own virtual tours, giving a 360° view of the most visited sections of their galleries, while smaller institutions relied upon Google’s Street View, to make their experience available virtually. These tours were considered far more useful than paper maps, during in-person experiences, however, with a worldwide pandemic, can virtual experience and tours replace the experience itself.
Any analysis of whether the experience of galleries and museums would yield an affirmative response. The exploration of these spaces are sensory experiences that stimulate individuals’ hearing, sight and smell. For when one is exploring New York Botanical Garden’s Spring Bloom, they not only look at the flora but also smell it in the air, while hearing the chatter of the fauna it coexists with. The murmurs of the people make the whole event a collective one. However, with virtual tours in place, it is only the sight that gets to partake in the process, making it terribly one-dimensional. For an experience that was created to help people tackle the isolation of being at home, the Virtual Tours are dreadfully isolating and lonely, due to persisting images of empty halls of the galleries, corridors and gardens available to the visitors. They take away the intimacy of being in a space and experiencing its physicality. Moreover, the paintings, artwork, artefacts in a virtual tour, become mere objects that one gets to see or know about. You do not get to understand the intricacies of each and every artwork, like the purpose of the painting, the placement of it in a particular collection and so on.
The Louvre, Paris, France.
Virtual Tours and Experiences have made Museums and Galleries a more democratic space, opening doors to people all around the globe, to explore the history that they could not have done earlier due to economical, social and cultural gaps. However, simultaneously it has also raised questions about the ‘commodification’ of historical artwork and artefacts. Does art need to be confined to the four walls of the museum? Should some people have to pay to participate in the process of experiencing history, that should be equally accessible to everyone?
It is rather the ‘fetishization’ of the exhibition that museums and galleries bank upon. The increasing tendency to sell the place, rather than to experience the artwork, has also allowed Institutions to charge a high entry fee. This is also exaggerated through aggressive marketing campaigns about the grandiosity of the collections that the places are exhibiting. With things going virtual, people from all walks of life are getting to participate in the experience, which has raised the question, whether the experience of art should be sold as commodities in exchange for monetary value when the intent behind these creations has never been, financial benefit. Art is considered to be an extension of the self, an expression of one’s emotions, desires and inhibitions. Thus, when these artworks are displayed in exhibitions for consumption especially against a price, they are reduced to mere objects. Most people do not visit the Louvre to learn about the history of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the mysteries that underlie the process of her creation, but rather to gain bragging rights of having seen and experienced the painting in person.
The attitude of the majority of the people towards artwork is what has given Museums and Galleries a leeway into selling experiences as commodities. This has also facilitated some museums, with resources to climb up the ladder of popularity by conducting annual charity events with celebrities for advertisement. The virtual tours, therefore, are not only a threat to the revenue that these places generate but also to the exclusivity that these places create by including only economically and culturally niche groups of people.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Looking at the capitalist approach that Museums, Galleries and Art Institutes are taking, is there any scope for understanding the reason behind it. When analysing the financial position of these Museums during the pandemic, it is revealed that several museums have incurred heavy losses due to the lockdown. The Met Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, The Duomo, to name a few were expected to incur losses of over 150 million dollars in 2020. Money is required by these Institutions not only to maintain the space but also to pay a large number of employees, from restoration artists to museum guides to the general support staff that would otherwise be laid off. Moreover, since each painting and artefact is unique, they require special care and maintenance which require a huge financial investment. However, this cannot justify the expansive commodification of experiences. The need is to create a more inclusive and democratic space so that people get to experience the same things in person that they did sitting at their desktops in pyjamas. Virtual Tours have opened up the field of Art History to the larger population, however, what lies ahead this road is Museums’ efforts in continuing to do so.
Muskaan Kanodia is a junior at Ashoka University, double majoring in English and Sociology. When she is not drowning in books, you can find her drawing and smiling at strangers on the ghats of Banaras.
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