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Diary of an art historian

Museums are about to reopen—but should they?

Social distancing measures mean a lot of money will be spent on a small number of visitors, institutions should be focusing on their online presence instead

Bendor Grosvenor likes looking at art like a monk eats his lunch: alone and in silence © Clem Onojeghu

Because I’m the sort of art lover who likes to look at a painting like a monk eats his lunch—in silence—I cannot wait to visit museums when they’ve reopened for a socially distanced world. Every visit will be like a private view. In Belgium, for example, museums will be limited to 50 visitors an hour, while the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden will admit no more than 200 people at any one time. Within the galleries, you won’t be able to approach anybody within 1.5m. Heaven.

But is it the right thing to do? Opening a museum’s doors costs money, and not many institutions have much to spare right now. For smaller museums who depend on admission fees, being able to open even for a restricted audience might prove a lifeline. For many national museums in the UK, however, the cost benefit analysis looks rather different. If the National Gallery in London were to follow Belgian rules, it would admit 400 visitors a day. Before the virus hit it welcomed 13,000 a day—and depended on selling them tea towels and cakes to help keep the lights on.

Reopening major galleries during a period of social distancing will require significant cash to be spent on a tiny number of people. An open museum would be a signal that life is returning to normal. But is it an appropriate use of scarce resources?

We could try a different kind of reopening. The most effective way for museums to reach their audience right now is online. Nothing beats standing in front of a masterpiece but the basic function of a gallery can be done impressively well online—if you have the right tools. Not all museums get it right, however.

Analysis of worldwide internet searches by Michael Alexis of Museum Hack found that at the beginning of the pandemic, there was an explosion of searches for virtual museum tours—for just four days. Museum Hack specialises in organising group tours of museums, so they’d prefer us to visit in person, but Alexis has a point: people quickly found that virtual tours are a terrible way of looking at art online. The galleries look great, the art less so.

That doesn’t mean, however, that looking at art online isn’t popular. In the UK, the number of people searching for “art galleries” fell by more than half in early March, when the lockdown began, but searches for “art online” more than doubled. And unlike searches for virtual tours, the number of people searching for art digitally has remained high.

Happily, there’s lots of good stuff to see. I’ve been impressed by sites like Sir John Soane Museum’s and the new British Museum collections database. But too many sites are inadequate for properly enjoying and learning about art. Click on the page for William Dobson—Britain’s first great oil painter—on Tate’s website and you’re offered only a small image and a link to Wikipedia. It’s a poor effort from what is supposed to be the nation’s shop window for British art.

Of course, new websites cannot be created overnight. But work to improve images and online information can start immediately. If museums focus resources on online visitors rather than physical ones right now, and capitalise on the huge new audiences available, they will find even more people wanting to visit in person when the pandemic is over. Then, tea towel sales will soar. And despite the crowds, I’ll be there.