A side-by-side comparison of Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of Postman Roulin" and a woman modeled after the sitter.

We Traversed the Digital Landscape: a Digital Tour Across the Nation’s Museums

By Margie Fuchs

“The only way to understand painting is to go and look at it,” once said the artist Pierre-August Renoir. “And if out of a million visitors there is even one to whom art means something, that is enough to justify museums.” Reading this quote, one can only wonder what the great French painter would think of our current situation, forced to look at jpegs behind a screen.

However, the closure of the world’s great arts and cultural institutions, due to the global health crisis, has given way to innovation as museums, galleries and the like bring their expansive collections to audiences online and come up with fantastic initiatives to further their mission. Some are opening up the vaults and presenting lesser known objects and artifacts, others are sharing artmaking resources, and a few are even launching feel-good social media campaigns to provide a bit of levity in the digital sphere.

But where to begin? We traversed the digital landscape to see how museums across the country are bringing their works and stories to life across their websites, newsletters and social media; below are five institutions that continue to inspire us. Now, hear us out: these are but five of the countless American institutions cutting through the digital noise and bringing bespoke programming to all of us at home. Other highlights include the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri and the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut. As we’re adjusting to our new normal, we recommend checking out your favorite museum to see what they’re doing online. Who knows what you may discover!

Detroit Institute of Arts – Detroit, Michigan

A side-by-side comparison of Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare" and a contemporary recreation.
Left: Henry Fuseli’s "The Nightmare," 1781. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Right: social media users’ interpretation of the scene. Courtesy of DIA’s Instagram account.

The Detroit Institute of Arts houses one of the largest and most significant art collections in the United States, so it’s no wonder that creative social media users have taken to posing as works from the Museum. As a part of the #RecreateDIA challenge, followers have modeled as Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Postman Roulin (1888), Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare and more, all using objects found at home. Inspired by similar activities on The Getty Museum’s Instagram and new parody social media accounts, this art historical challenge pushes audiences to consider the figuration, poses and framing essential to an artwork and to think outside of the box in recreating it with everyday materials. As the modern interpretation of Fuseli’s The Nightmare above shows, this is also a great way to engage roommates, family members and even pets. Audiences can submit their own recreations for a chance to be featured on the Museum’s Instagram by tagging their posts with the hashtag #RecreateDIA.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York City, New York

This colorful work by Jacob Lawrence shows a few characters and bright feathers
Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917–2000. 18. In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit… –Jefferson to Lewis & Clark, 1803, 1956. Egg tempera on hardboard. 16 x 12 inches. Signed and dated lower center

Next on our virtual tour, we paid a visit to our real-life Upper East Side neighbor: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although The Met’s 150th anniversary festivities have been muted due to its temporary closure, the Museum recently announced a lineup of additional content to complement its materials online. This includes the #MetAnywhere social media campaign, which brings the resources of the United States’ largest art museum directly into your home. We enjoyed the 360-degree tours of the institution’s storied halls, as well as unearthed footage from The Met’s moving-image archive (did you know that a 1924 silent film includes a medieval knight touring the Museum’s Armor Galleries?). Recognizing that streaming viewership has increased since social distancing began, The Met has also premiered two works: the full-length documentary Gerhard Richter Painting and the iconic American opera The Mother of Us All, with music by Virgil Thomson and libretto by Gertrude Stein. The #MetAnywhere campaign extends beyond video to also include collection highlights, publications and popular at-home activities like Met Sketch, which encourages viewers to draw the Museum. As we eagerly await the Museum’s re-opening – and the forthcoming Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle exhibition – it’s exciting to learn new facets about an institution as popular as The Met.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art – Bentonville, Arkansas

Georgia O'Keeffe's vision of the New York City skyscrapers at night.
Georgia O’Keeffe, American, 1887-1986. Radiator Building – Night, New York, 1927. Oil on canvas. 48x 30 in. The Alfred Stieglitz collection. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

This period of social distancing has led us to reflect on the power of seeing artworks in person. While nothing can match the wonder of wandering through a Museum’s galleries, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is bringing as much of that experience as possible to viewers through its virtual Museum tours. From Instagram, you can tune into lectures from Crystal Bridges curators, tour the Museum’s expansive trails and gardens and learn the story behind some of the Museum’s most famous works. Aside from virtual tours, the Museum’s dedicated #CBFromHome campaign curates its wealth of resources into a one-stop art viewing (and artmaking) shop for digital viewers. Curious about the Museum’s Sam Gilliam artworks or Alfred Stieglitz collection? Crystal Bridges’ entire permanent collection is now available for perusal on its website. Interested in brushing up on your art history knowledge, or introducing the subject to children at home? The Museum’s Education department has developed a library of online educational tools, as well as arts and crafts activities for those cooped up inside. For avid readers, #CBFromHome features in-depth blog articles on American art; the initiative also includes a podcast component for audio fans. If you’re in the Bentonville area, you can also stretch your legs while exploring the over 30 sculptures on the Museum’s grounds, which remain open to the public – lucky you!

Museum of Modern Art – New York City, New York

Donald Judd's rectangular sculpture with rectangular subsections of varying colors.
Donald Judd, American, 1928-1994. Untitled, 1991. Enameled aluminum. Bequest of Richard S. Zeisler and gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (both by exchange) and gift of Kathy Fuld, Agnes Gund, Patricia Cisneros, Doris Fisher, Mimi Haas, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, and Emily Spiegel. © 2020 Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Museum of Modern Art is pioneering the #MuseumFromHome social media initiative, which encourages digital audiences to embrace all the Museum has to offer from the safety and comfort of their homes. If you didn’t get a chance to see the monumental Donald Judd retrospective at MoMA before it closed, fear not. The Museum has aggregated resources, allowing anyone with an internet connection to learn about Judd’s revolutionary approach to sculpture, including Instagram videos examining the details of Judd’s Minimalist works. MoMA has also launched #MoMAVirtualViews, which features live Q&As with the artist’s son and interviews with contemporary artists about Judd’s impact on the evolution of modern sculpture. We’ve also bookmarked MoMA’s free online courses on contemporary art and art history: for those of you wondering how some of the 20th century’s Abstractionists approached their work, MoMA’s In the Studio: Postwar Abstract Painting turns back time with its in-depth look at the materials and techniques of modernist titans, including Willem de Kooning, Agnes Martin and Jackson Pollock. If you’re more interested in – or find yourself scratching your head about – contemporary art, tune into the Museum’s 101 class about artworks made between 1980 and the present day. Tell us what you think!

Speed Art Museum – Louisville, Kentucky

A 19th century brooch made of woven human hair and encircled by pearls.
American, Brooch, 1851. Gold, glass, hair, pearls. Gift of Miss Susanna Preston Shelby Grigsby. Speed Art Museum.

In an effort to explore some of the more unique items in its collection, Louisville’s Speed Art Museum introduced the hashtag #MuseumWonderland across its social media channels. Presented as a weekly series, #MuseumWonderland highlights eclectic artworks from the depths of the Speed’s collection, including the above vintage brooch, which features interwoven braids of human hair! Created to commemorate the 1851 wedding of Susanna Preston Shelby, granddaughter of Kentucky’s first governor, this brooch frames Shelby’s golden locks with a ring of pearls. In its Instagram post, the Speed explored the history of hair jewelry and how this unique work, as well as etchings of local tourist attractions, porcelain figures and more, came into its hands. Call us biased, but one of our favorite pieces in the Museum’s holdings is Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Honorably Discharged (1919), which the Gallery helped place into The Speed’s permanent collection. For cinephiles and future artists alike, The Speed has also started a new video series, #ArtSparksfromHome, which shares artmaking tutorials inspired by works at the Museum. Hosted on Instagram TV, this series challenges everyone to get creative while at home, by prompting viewers to transform cardboard boxes into printers blocks for geometric printmaking. For more home entertainment, the Museum is also providing recommendations for films to stream at home. Now go get the popcorn ready, and enjoy!

Cover image: Left: Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of Postman Roulin,” 1888. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Right: social media user’s interpretation of the portrait. Courtesy of DIA’s Instagram account.