October 15, 2020 | Arts and Culture
reevaluating museum-going in a quarantined age
As I entered the MoMA on February 15, 2020, I didn’t realize it would be the last time I would be in a museum for the next seven months, a time span that makes me shudder just to recall.
Living 30 minutes outside of New York City and concentrating in art history, to say I took museum-going for granted would be an understatement. Aimlessly strolling through installations at the Met was second nature when I was at home, and walking to the RISD Museum between classes in college had become routine. I took every opportunity to surround myself with art, and studied for hours on end in RISD’s Café Pearl.
In these ordinary museum moments, I never thought twice about how many people were in a room with me. Standing far away from the art, maintaining quiet in galleries, and keeping to oneself are assumed etiquette inside a museum. It was only when lines were longer than usual that I took note of other museumgoers––never as a safety issue, but who under normal circumstances wants to look at the Mona Lisa behind plexiglass from eight feet away, surrounded by thousands of strangers?
In February, I visited the MoMA to see the brand new Dorothea Lange photography exhibition. My interest in the exhibit was apparently not unique. For each of the hundreds of photographs on the wall, there were at least five viewers crowded around to examine the intricate details. When it came to Lange’s infamous Migrant Mother, rows upon rows of viewers lined up to steal a glimpse of the iconic Great Depression image. As I stood shoulder to shoulder with strangers, I became acutely aware of the congested space that I had never noticed before.
Ask any art historian and they’ll tell you about the importance of looking closely and seeing a work of art in person. So what happens when the essential is no longer possible? Well, you pivot. While I miss the physicality of the museum space more than anything—standing at the same distance as the artist who painted the work, analyzing brush strokes with my own eyes, and seeing how big or small a painting truly is—being at home with added opportunities to browse the internet has inspired me to explore museums I otherwise would not have the physical opportunity to enter. During quarantine, I found myself browsing the online collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. With the ability to hyper-zoom, I immersed myself in Monet’s garden at Vetheuil, zooming in until the work became mere dots and brushstrokes with no indication of a landscape, allowing a closeness never achievable in real life. While zooming in so close, I lost the bigger picture. I had to remind myself that online I was viewing a photograph of a painting through a screen, not the painting itself, an important detail often forgotten with the excitement of having millions of works at your fingertips.
Though the experience of viewing art in person cannot be matched, museums have been forced to be creative in how they engage with audiences no longer within their walls. They have enhanced their websites, expanded online programming, and allowed audiences who may never have entered a physical museum to interact with art on their own terms, from their own homes. For me, this includes scrolling through museum social media pages and looking at the clever ways institutions combine messages with memes. The Getty Museum’s Instagram page does a fantastic job of putting traditional art historical practice into action. They will hide an emoji within a post of a painting, so users must engage closely to find it. Other times, they start a post with a question, introducing users to visual thinking strategies often utilized during in-person tours. By asking their digital audience, “Why did Cezanne paint so many apples? Leave your guesses in the comments,” viewers are encouraged to look closely at the work to try and uncover clues to answer the question, build a dialogue by replying to other commenters, and receive instant gratification by scrolling only a few inches down to access the answer. In doing so, art and interpretation are no longer something viewers must go out of their way to seek out. Instead, the Getty Museum’s posts are something to look forward to, a fun game that engages your senses just by scrolling through your Instagram feed. Given the accessibility and joy of accessing art with the click of a button, I hope that this new norm of virtually “entering” museum collections lasts even as physical museum doors begin to open.
Once the Met welcomed visitors back into their galleries with new Covid guidelines, I cautiously ventured back for the first time in what felt like an eternity. Constantly working in museums at school and during the summer for the past two years, I couldn’t remember the last time I went more than a month without being in a physical gallery space. Entering the Met again this September felt bittersweet. Rather than navigating the New York City subways, I drove into Manhattan, booking a reservation time at home before stepping foot on the premises. Though this made for a smoother, more careful entrance, I missed the normal museum-going routine I’d practiced since childhood.
For this momentous re-entrance I met a friend from college in the city, a dual reunion after months of separation. As I sped to the American art wing, a path that had become muscle memory––from the Great Hall entrance to the second floor gallery––my friend couldn’t see the smile that spread from ear to ear under my mask as I reunited with my favorite Mary Cassatt work. These circumstances became a moment for dialogue, forcing me to explain my love for this piece rather than merely emoting my excitement as I normally would. Cassatt’s Young Mother Sewing has been my phone lock screen for over a year. It’s practically ingrained in my mind, yet seeing it again in person felt as if I was seeing it for the first time. I stopped to read the artwork’s tombstone over and over, attempting to memorize the descriptive language as I did not know the next time I would read this information in person. I took in the colors of each gallery wall, mentally noting where each work hung and which paintings were neighbors. Most of all, I didn’t take for granted the luxury, and risk, of entering a museum space. I felt safe navigating the Met and following protocols, but I also accepted this museum experience was not as it once was—the days of mindlessly looking at any artwork the moment I pleased were gone, replaced by a situation focused more on the surrounding setting than a work’s subject matter itself.
As of now, I don’t know when the next time I step foot in a traditional gallery space will be. But I have ways to keep engaging with art in the meantime. Whether it’s through sending a postcard of a painting to my friend, showing my mom an art history meme I found on Instagram, or getting lost in a museum’s online archives, art will always be a model for communication and collective engagement. Cassatt, da Vinci, and Monet—our in-person encounters are at a stand still, but I look forward to seeing you soon.