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Free Virtual Museum Tours: Expand Your Horizons Without Leaving Home

As COVID continues to shutter cultural institutions, museums are using technology as a way to give art-lovers virtual entryway into their hallowed halls and galleries. 

Have you ever wanted to visit the Louvre in Paris or travel to Holland to see the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh? Are you worried about your children becoming culturally starved during lockdown? Now you and your family can take a firsthand look at world masterpieces, ancient artifacts, and myriad educational exhibits without having to brave the lines and, of course, the dangers of the current health crisis. 

Virtual Museums: The Finer Strokes 

Within the past several years, more than a thousand museums and cultural institutions worldwide have partnered with Google to make at least part of their collections accessible online. The COVID-19 outbreak has only expanded the size and scope of these virtual treasures. How do you navigate this vast amount of material, and what should you be looking for in a free virtual museum tour? Let’s take a look at some of the key factors.

  • Google Arts & Culture Collection

Museums have been offering select online collections for many years, but only recently has Google entered the fray, offering a more easily accessible and searchable method of viewing items on exhibit. 

Beyond improved search functions, the advantages the Google Arts & Culture portal offers include the ability to enlarge pieces to see extreme detail at a high resolution, information on each item (which is always in English, unlike some of the museum sites that are in different countries), and searches that display results from all of the various museums taking part in the program. You can search by artist, time period, style and even color, or you can search for a specific institution.

  • Virtual Museums = 360 Degree Views

The same technology which powers Google Street View, allowing users to see panoramic views of neighborhoods worldwide, has been taken indoors to some of the world’s top museums. However, filming all of the locations and museum pieces from multiple angles is a time-consuming process that requires vast resources, and therefore not every museum offers the same scope of 360 views. Some of the virtual museums will give you just a small look at what their grounds look like, while others offer you to roam freely, giving more of a feeling of what it’s actually like to be there.

  • Expanded Online Collections

Prior to the advent of the panoramic style virtual tours that Google Arts & Culture offers today, many of the top museums displayed online collections on their own websites. Some of these museums still offer extended online collections to supplement the items they make viewable on Google Arts and Culture. This is a nice addition for those looking to take a deep dive into a particular collection. The pieces are not always displayed at the same quality that Google Arts & Culture offers, but they give you a decent view of the exhibit items.

Here’s a look at the 10 most stimulating and beautiful museum tours accessible via your own computer screen:

1. The British Museum

  • Must-see piece/exhibit: The Rosetta Stone from ancient Egypt 
The British MuseumCredit: Wikimedia Commons

The British Museum displays objects spanning a period of some 2 million years, from the dawn of human culture to the present. The tour of the museum offers 360 views of thousands of objects as they appear in the halls of the museum, as well as prints of the objects, which can be enlarged and viewed in further detail. In addition to the description of each item that appears on Google Arts & Culture, there is a link to the British Museum’s own website with further details on each piece, including curator’s notes and a description of how each piece was acquired. The British Museum also has a separate online collection, “The Museum of the World,” which is a partnership with the Google Cultural Institute that features pieces from across time and includes audio explanations of the items from British Museum curators.

2. The Museum of Modern Art

  • Must-see piece/exhibit: Augmented-reality view of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”
Museum of Modern ArtCredit: Wikimedia Commons

When it opened in Manhattan in 1929, the MoMA was the world's first ever museum devoted to the modern era. The museum has sought to remain on the cutting edge by offering a large amount of its collection for perusal online. The museum's Google Arts & Culture selection is relatively limited, however its own site is quite extensive, displaying tens of thousands of modern art pieces currently on display at the museum or from past exhibits.

3. The Smithsonian

  • Must-see piece/exhibit: check out the enormous butterfly exhibit 
SmithsonianCredit: Wikimedia Commons

A small number of the Smithsonian Institution's dozens of museums are represented with Google Arts & Culture online museum tours, including the National Portrait Gallery, the American Art Museum, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the Freer Sackler Museums of Asian Art. For a 360 panoramic view of the Natural History Museum, you can go directly to the Smithsonian site or Google Arts & Culture. The nature of the Natural History Museum's exhibits is particularly impressive in panoramic view. The American Art Museum is minimally represented on Google Arts & Culture as well, with a minimal 360 tour and only a couple hundred pieces of art. There is a wider number of pieces available on the museum's own website.

4. The Louvre

  • Must-see piece/exhibit: Pick up some new French words 
LouvreCredit: Wikimedia Commons

The Louvre is one of the most famous and visited art museums on the planet, and while its online offering may not be as robust as some other museums, you can still view quite a few of its pieces from the comfort of your own home. The museum does not display items on Google Arts & Culture, nor can you see panoramic views on the platform from inside the museum. However, you can virtually explore the grounds of the museum where several impressive statues and pieces of artwork reside. For panoramic views of the museum's interior, you'll have to go to the Louvre's own website where there are a few free virtual museum tours available. However, the navigation is not as seamless as Google's navigation. You can also find a number of items displayed on the Louvre site, however many of the descriptions are in French only.

5. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Must-see piece/exhibit: The Christian Dior Ball Gowns exhibit 
The Metropolitan Museum of ArtCredit: Wikimedia Commons

This venerated New York landmark has a very respectable showing on Google Arts & Culture with a virtual tour that lets you walk through the museum's halls as if you were there, and several hundred items on display - from paintings to historical fashion pieces. Many of the items include audio descriptions available through an external link to the museum's own website, which impressively hosts some 450,000 items.

6. The Guggenheim

  • Must-see piece/exhibit: Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today 
GuggenheimCredit: Wikimedia Commons

The Guggenheim doesn't offer a massive number of pieces on Google Arts & Culture, however the pieces it does offer have external links to its own website, where there is an unparalleled amount of information on each. The contemporary artists that are part of the museum's UBS Map Global Art Initiative have contributed video pieces about their art as well. The panoramic views of the museum on Google Arts & Culture give a good representation of what the museum has to offer.

7. The Uffizi Gallery

  • Must-see piece/exhibit: View Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” from multiple angles with Google Street View
Uffizi GalleryCredit: Wikimedia Commons

This Italian gallery’s virtual tour is a dream for aficionados of renaissance art. It is easily navigable and the hallways of the gallery are plush with statues and paintings. The gallery has relatively few items on Google Arts & Culture, but they are among the world’s most famous works, and there is an impressive amount of information on each piece.

8. The Rijksmuseum

  • Must-see piece/exhibit: See one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits up close