The Best Free Virtual Tours of Museums in the World
October 17 2020
By Manuel Charr
Going to museums and art galleries has not been easy in 2020. Although many museums have been open to the public over the course of the summer, there have often been restrictions on opening hours and the numbers of visitors allowed in. Add to this the various travel restrictions that have also been imposed and many museums have not been enjoyed as much as they otherwise might.
However, as the museum sector has begun to gear up for a winter in which social restrictions are looking increasingly likely to play their part in suppressing physical visitor numbers, so more and more have turned to virtual experiences instead. With many of the world’s most famous and best-loved institutions are now offering free virtual museum tours even as they remain open – for the time being, at least.
So, what are some of the best virtual tours of museums.
The Louvre, Paris
The Louvre is usually one of the most popular tourist destination in Europe. However, over the course of 2020, it has opened and closed several times with different sets of rules for visitors to follow. Nevertheless, there are now seven different virtual tours of the museum that people can enjoy without ever having to leave their homes today.
One of them enables virtual visitors to explore the Medieval foundations of the later palace that now serves as the museum. ‘Remains of the Louvre’s Moat’ takes you on a tour of the defences that were built in 1190 to protect Paris from attack via the Seine. A virtual walk around the original perimeter of the moat allows you to explore the old piers that would have supported the fortification’s drawbridge.
The museum’s Petite Galerie also offers several virtual tours. Some are devoted to performance art and dance while others focus on illustration. The Louvres’ main collection is also on display – that part of it which occupies the Sully wing, anyway. Here, virtual visitors can enjoy the museum’s Egyptian collections that are on level 0 and 1 on the east side of the gallery.
Amsterdam has some of the best museums in the whole of the Netherlands and visitor numbers to the Van Gogh Museum could never be said to be low. However, this institution, too, has decided that it needs to move with the times and offer a free virtual experience. The online version of visiting the gallery space is extensive. Visitors can enjoy looking at the largest collection of artworks by Van Gogh that have been assembled online. The virtual tour includes some 200 paintings and over 500 drawings by the great man.
On top of this, virtual tourists can look at in the region of 750 personal letters that the artist wrote to correspondents of all types during the course of his life. Many were written to his brother, Theo, and they offer a great deal of insight into the artist’s mental state as well as his art. What’s more, the gallery has a number of apps for people to download as well as some online activities that are specifically designed for children, thereby helping to make a virtual visit one that is for all the family.
Museum-goers who are missing the experience of milling around and simply following their noses when they enter an institution should not be disappointed. Although many of the free museum tours offer limited views of collections, some provide a truly virtual experience which means being able to explore in a more natural way. This is certainly the case with The British Museum which has used Google’s Street View technology to allow virtual visitors to simply point and click their way around the entire museum space.
In fact, the British Museum is currently the largest single indoor space that can be explored in this virtual way. That said, moving around the museum in this manner does not always mean being able to gain much context about the artefacts on display. Thankfully, the museum has other, more conventional tours which focus on specific topics. There’s one on Roman food and another on Egyptian mummification practices, for example.
This Japanese museum is devoted to the world-famous animation studio. Located in the city of Mitaka, close to Tokyo, the museum has gone down the route of producing video presentations of its collections. These went live on the museum’s YouTube channel in March of this year, just as visitor numbers were beginning to fall as the pandemic took hold.
Today, there are a total of five video tours that you can take. Each showcases a different aspect of the museum’s exhibits, some focussing on characters while others deal with landscapes from the studio’s imaginative movie scenes. Although the tours do not offer as much interaction as some of the other ones on this list, it is hardly surprising that the museum has chosen to opt for this approach given that it is a skilled producer of narrative storytelling in a visual format to begin with.
This virtual tour offers visitors the chance to look at almost everything that they would be able to see if they were in the Eternal City for real. All seven spaces of the museums’ galleries are viewable in a 360-degree format. With the swipe of a touchscreen or a click of the mouse, visitors are transported into some of the most sacred spaces in Europe.
For example, it is possible to enter the Sistine Chapel and to then alter the angle of the tour to inspect Leonard Da Vinci’s famous ceiling painting. The tour also allows visitors to wander outside and around the Vatican City including Saint Peter’s Basilica and Square among many other highlights. One of the best things about the virtual tour is that the grandeur of the architecture truly comes to life and you do not have to experience it alongside the crowds that usually gather in the Vatican.
Like the Vatican Museums, the Picasso Museum in the Catalonian capital city offers its virtual audience a 360-degree tour of its whole complex. This is particularly impressive given the architecture that can be viewed. The museum is just as much about the gallery space itself as it is about the works of art it has in its collection, in many visitors’ eyes. This virtual tour moves around at a slow but steady pace which is predetermined.
However, there is plenty of interaction on offer because visitors have the freedom to look in any direction they like. They can scroll backwards and forwards to gain different vantage points from wherever the current location of the tour happens to be. Helpfully, the virtual tour also includes a narration which helps people to feel more immersed in what they are viewing and to understand it in a wider context.The Picasso Museum’s layout makes exploring its remarkable courtyards and stairways a pleasant online experience. It may not fully emulate the experience of truly being there but it also means being able to explore the museum without having to put up with other visitors getting in the way.
The 360-degree freedom certainly adds to the sense of autonomy virtual visitors will feel. However, if visitors are more interested in the art than the architecture, then they will be better off opting for the museum’s other virtual tour which does not offer this roaming feature.
As one of the most famous art museums in the United States, there are plenty of virtual offerings to tempt people to visit the gallery. At the moment, the National Gallery of Art has two online exhibits which are delivered through Google. The first of these is an exploration North American fashion that covers the period from 1740 to the end of the nineteenth century. It features numerous virtual renderings of clothing that would have been worn in the colonial era going forwards in time to the US Revolution. The other Google-led virtual tour is devoted to the gallery’s collection of artworks by the Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer.
In addition, the gallery has produced a couple of 3-D tours that visitors can explore autonomously in their own time just as though they were visiting the museum’s galleries themselves. These work in any browser can are even compatible with virtual reality equipment for visitors who have such technology. The first of these two online tours is devoted to the Renaissance artist Raphael and his contemporaries. Clicking on a coloured dot during the tour brings up information about the artwork that is being viewed. The other online tour of this type is very similar in its layout but is centred on the art of the nineteenth-century French painter Edgar Degas.
Find the National Gallery of Art virtual tour here.
The Guggenheim, Bilbao
This art gallery may have one of the most contemporary-looking spaces in the world thanks to Frank Gehry’s famous titanium and steel design. However, the modern art museum, which is situated on the banks of the Nervión River in northern Spain, is open to visitors who want to enjoy what is on display inside. The gallery’s interactive tour takes visitors on a journey throughout the stunning gallery space but it is very much focussed on the collection. Much of what is on offer is drawn from American and European painting and sculpture from the latter half of the twentieth century with the likes of Rothko, Koons and Kapoor featuring heavily.
Incidentally, the Guggenheim Museum in New York also has a virtual tour, another one that was set up with Google Arts and Culture to provide an in-depth experience. The sister institution has lots of information to go alongside the art that is on display in its virtual collection. At both museums, virtual visitors can zoom in on artworks to get a very close up view indeed.
There are several virtual tours on offer from the Natural History Museum. Perhaps the most impressive is the Google Arts and Culture-powered blue whale tour. This makes use of augmented reality technology to give visitors a real sense of what life is like beneath the waves for these impressive creatures. As well as offering insights into the museum’s collection that are not possible in-person, this virtual tour also makes good use of sound for a truly immersive experience.
Other tours on offer are not so in-depth or make use of such ground-breaking technology but are nonetheless fascinating. One is narrated by Sir David Attenborough and takes visitors on a virtual tour of the museum’s Hintze Hall. Another uses virtual 3-D technology to allow users to interact with a dinosaur skull and to analyse it in astonishing detail.
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul
This art museum is a multi-site one that occupies different locations in the South Korean capital and beyond. As such, it is hardly surprising that the virtual curators of its online tours have opted to offer several different online experiences. Some allow visitors to explore prints, graphic design and photography while others focus more on sculpture and large-scale installations. There is even one devoted to new media art, particularly fitting for an online tour.
Again powered by Google, the main virtual tour allows virtual attendees to explore all of the six storeys that make up the main gallery’s building in Seoul. In addition, the powers that be at the contemporary art museum have produced a number of videos, often given by curators to explain their collections. These have been made available on the museum’s website in several languages, helping to open up the gallery’s collection to a much wider audience.
Virtual museum tours have proved incredibly popular during the global pandemic, with many museums reporting large increases in the number of people visiting their websites. Will more museums respond to this interest in visiting museums virtually and create content in virtual reality and augmented reality to make their collections accessible to people around the world?
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.