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Experiencing museums and galleries in a COVID-19 age

Since the announcement of further lockdown easing measures from the 4th July, galleries and museums across the country have released cautious re-opening plans. The National Gallery, where doors are set to open from the 8th July, was amongst the first to announce their proposed social distancing measures: visitors will move through the museum via three pre-determined one-way routes with hand sanitiser stations placed regularly, whilst PPE shall be provided to staff and mask-wearing ‘encouraged’ for all visitors. This will all impact experiencing museums in a COVID-19 age.

Is it worth going at all?

Though still compiling their own strategies, those following suit include  The Royal Academy, The Barbican, and all four Tate galleries in July, as well as smaller galleries such as Oxford’s own Ashmolean Museum in August. This may all be hopeful news for art and culture lovers, but it raises some difficult questions. After all, is it safe to head back into public spaces? Will we feel comfortable at these distanced exhibitions? Is it worth going at all?

During the strictest lockdown period, countless exhibitions moved online for public safety reasons. Though not all critical responses have been positive – Laura Cumming’s comment in The Observer that galleries can ‘stop pretending their online viewing rooms are actual shows’ is one example -, and some of us have wistfully imagined being there in person, the majority of these virtual tours and guides have been a genuinely excellent alternative – and far more accessible.

Just looking within Oxford, though they have no plans to re-open so far, the Natural History Museum’s virtual viewing software is a great – if slightly motion-sickening – way to take a look around at your own pace. Meanwhile, Modern Art Oxford is a game-changer: their three fully-curated online exhibits are incredibly easy to navigate; each exhibit showcases details about every work, educational videos, and signposted artist testimonies signposted. As the pandemic continues to take hundreds of lives a day, and this range of high-quality material only a click away, there is certainly an argument to continue exploring galleries from home. Yet as Jenny Waldman, director of the Art Fund, commented, ‘the lockdown closures have hit museums’ finances incredibly hard’. After months of total income loss, and with few permanent collections to rely on, many of the UK’s best-loved galleries are facing extinction.

For places such as the Ashmolean, whose much-anticipated ‘Young Rembrandt’ exhibition was shut after only two weeks, funds to maintain the artwork loans, security, and overhead costs are rapidly dwindling. Re-opening is also a financial nightmare in many ways, with director Xa Sturgis explaining that “the most we’ll be able to send through the socially distanced system is 600 visitors a week, instead of almost 5,000” – not enough to fund their loan security on Rembrandt’s 1629 self-portrait from Munich. Plans are still underway, however, for their mid-August re-opening; it seems this may be the last chance for smaller venues like this to revive themselves. If distancing measures are strictly enforced, the compromised visitor intake could be the safest (and perhaps only) way to protect both the public and the art they love.

funds to maintain the artwork loans, security, and overhead costs are rapidly dwindling

So what of the visitor experience itself? Taking the National Gallery’s measures as a basis, there seem to be some stand-out positives: unlike other leisure spots, the pub, for example, having fewer crowds and a quieter atmosphere is a definite bonus. A clear route around all the artworks also appears a useful addition, even if it might feel forced. Whilst it is inevitable that people will have to move at a reasonably fixed pace to maintain distance, leaving less time to pause over favourite pieces, the National Gallery is determined that visitors can wander freely around these marked routes despite their booked timed slot system – though whether this is achievable remains to be seen.

Yet, even if there were a sense of restriction, it would feel a little tone-deaf to mourn the old, ‘normal’ gallery visit. We are lucky if a trip is of low risk to our health; to grumble about a set route or having to wear a mask seems frankly entitled. The fact that these places still exist at all in the current climate is something about which to be profoundly grateful and to treasure whilst it lasts. It may feel strange at first; but, a chance to see original artworks anywhere, whatever the format, should not be sniffed at.

‘everything has an aura now, and not just the art’

Adrian Searle

One issue that does seem a reasonable concern, however, is not the restriction of the measures, but rather their effectiveness. It could well be possible, as the National Gallery hopes, to still move freely and spend time on each artwork, but will it actually feel comfortable to do so?

Adrian Searle, reviewing the recently opened ‘Crushed, Cast, Constructed’ Gagosian sculpture exhibition for The Guardian, described how ‘everything has an aura now, and not just the art’: there is a tension between the thrill of seeing artworks in the flesh again and our new paranoid awareness of distance. It could be difficult to feel that relaxed, immersive atmosphere of a museum or gallery when constantly monitoring our personal space. And yet, within a month of one-way supermarkets and two-meter queues for the post office, we no longer give it much thought; surely there is no reason why museums and galleries cannot slip into our ‘new normal’?

Socially distanced museums and galleries will be different from previous exhibitions, and probably from our expectations. They could, nonetheless, provide some hope of the art world’s revival – if only for the short term. Wariness of the gradual easing of lockdown is understandable, and many collections are still worth exploring in all their glory online. But for anyone just dreaming of a good old wander through a gallery or curious about experiencing museums in a COVID-19 age, you may rest assured that our arts institutions are equally desperate to have you back. Let us be grateful that they can at all.

Photograph by Lewis Clark via Wikimedia & Creative Commons.

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