By Karen Rodis, Arts in Education Coordinator
Every family has traditions. When I was growing up, one of my own family traditions was to suit up and head out for an excursion into New York City’s vast array of art and history museums. My art education was up close and personal, and even today I feel as though I know the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ancient Egyptian collection like the back of my hand (“Hi, William!”). What a marvel it was to peer closely at van Gogh’s brushstrokes and the fine lines of Dürer’s engravings. For me, wandering through a museum was the rich, self-directed education that no art class could ever give me.
Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh, 1887 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org)
Now that I live in Vermont, I still check out art where I can find it in-person: in small museums, art shows, local galleries, and my friends’ personal studios. However, I do miss that experience of taking an entire day to wander through long sets of connected rooms, relishing dozens of unexpected creations of skill and imagination. When I get that urge to study a Frida Kahlo painting or amuse myself with Marcel Duchamp’s absurdity, what’s a girl to do?
Lately, I’ve been checking out the free online museum collections that one can easily find with any search engine. Google the name of a large museum and you are likely to find a menu that lets you view part, or all, of that museum’s collection right there in the comfort of your own living room. While some museums’ online libraries are more extensive than others, taking the time to browse a museum site can be a fun and inspiring way to play or research whenever you want…I mean, how many museums are open to the public at 11pm? And when you visit a popular museum exhibit in person, the pushing and shoving of crowds is not only incredibly annoying but gets in the way of really being able to see each piece. One answer: go digital!
Don’t get me wrong: a photograph of a piece of art does not by any stretch of the imagination do justice to the experience of actually viewing it with your own eyes. But without access to originals—which could very well be across the world in the Hermitage Museum—we can enjoy, and learn from, high-quality reproductions right here on our computer screens. And the internet may be a way for us to give new value to the artwork in museum collections, by the new meanings we attribute to art in the context of our own daily lives. Opening up wider access to art also permits a broader population of people to develop new knowledge and new memories, and to use these resources for creative production and the construction of new multimodal literacies. Stuff like that. William Morris famously said, "I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few."
It’s a joy to look at the collections of my old friends The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) from afar. A bit further afield, the State Hermitage Museum, The British Museum, and the Museo Nacional del Prado all have vast collections to explore. Small museums like the Ashmolean (University of Oxford) surprise me with such jewels as the images and notes from John Ruskin’s Teaching Collection. The Louvre site allows you to search its collections using several different databases, and then even lets you create your own digital album of favorite artwork that you can return to while you are on the site. For something completely different, check out the Museum of Bad Art, where the descriptions are as--or more--amusing than the actual artwork itself. In exploring The Guggenheim collection, I discovered this magical and dreamlike Chagall that just invites you to grab a café and spend some time with it.
Paris Through the Window (Paris par la fenêtre), Marc Chagall, 1913 (Guggenheim Museum, www.guggenheim.org)
Some collections, like the Met's, have high-quality images and let you zoom in to see all the juicy details. At the Hermitage Museum and the Louvre sites it is disappointing to find more than a few broken links to larger images, leaving me squinting at thumbnails. Images are tiny, too, at the Studio Museum Harlem site. However, there are many fantastic sites and a treasure trove lies out there waiting to be explored. Of course, due to a multitude of different reasons many world museums do not currently have the ability--or do not want--to put their collections online. I personally hope to be able to visit the National Museum of Ethiopia on my laptop someday.
It seems that more and more museums are uploading their collections to the web all the time. Artists, enthusiasts, teachers: it’s there for the pickin.’ So, on a day when you are in need of a few pleasant surprises and some inspiration, why not get comfy on your couch, grab that espresso or chai, and Google your favorite museum? Just don’t put the hot drink near your computer.
Statuette of a Hippopotamus (“William”), Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, Egyptian (Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org)