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Everyone remembers the first time they gazed in horror at the ancient Egyptian mummies, or even creepier Lindow Man, at the British Museum. Every year, millions of people jostle around the Rosetta Stone, take a selfie with the Easter Island moai and feign interest in yet another fragment of pottery at the famous institution. However, what if you don’t want to brave the museum crowds or simply can’t make it to London? Here’s our guide to the three best virtual museums in the world.
The best virtual museums: The Louvre
You can now visit parts of the World’s Most Famous Museum™ without battling through the picture-taking scrum under the bored gaze of Ms Gherardini. It might not be the most user-friendly website (in fact, it’s definitely not the most user-friendly website), but the Louvre’s online portal includes a virtual tour of the museum’s Egyptian antiquities, the remains of the Louvre’s moat and the stunning Galerie d’Apollon (home of Delacroix’s apocalyptic ceiling fresco Apollo Slaying the Serpent Python).
The virtual tours work in the same way as Google Street View: click on the floor arrows to advance through the hallowed corridors and pause to find out about selected artworks and artefacts. If you can look past the clunkiness of the website, and ignore the fact that you’re only visiting a fraction of the museum, it’s well worth spending half an hour looking at the priceless exhibits from the comfort of your own sofa.
The best virtual museums: Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (“the Met” for short), has a far slicker virtual tour than the Louvre. Powered by Google Street View, it allows you to explore the rooms by yourself and “jump ahead” to exhibits of particular note such as the Temple of Dendur. Each image is accompanied by a caption and, usefully, a list of similar recommended pieces from other museums around the world.
There are a few downsides. First, the Street View images are often blurry, leaving you unsure whether you’re looking at an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus or a bin. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, only a tiny portion of the museum is covered – so you’ll have to head to New York for a proper visit.
If you want a more general tour of the Met, though, there’s a collection of six short 360-degree videos on the museum’s website that allow you to “experience the magic of standing in an empty gallery after-hours, witnessing a bustling space in time-lapse, or floating high above The Met Cloisters for a bird’s-eye view”.
The best virtual museums: British Museum
The British Museum’s virtual space is the best by a country mile. Yes, I grew up within spitting (well, commuting) distance of London so I’m biased, but even a two-minute visit to the online “Museum of the World”, made in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute, will be enough to convince you that I’m right.
First, the British Museum replaces Street View-style tours with an elegant, and musical, timeline that ranges back from the present day to, wait for it, 2,000,000BC (around the time the Olduvai stone chopping tool was sharpened in what is now Tanzania). Set along this timeline are coloured blobs representing exhibits, which are then divided into sections signifying continents. The whole thing resembles a historical version of Guitar Hero, especially when you quickly scroll backwards through millennia.
Still not impressed? Instead of just having just one timeline, the Museum of the World has five: “Art and design”, “Living and dying”, “Power and identity”, “Religion and belief” and “Trade and conflict”. If you’re interested in weaponry, the last category is perfect for you, but I found the “Living and dying” timeline fascinating as it covers everything from Byzantine gravestones to Viking combs, emu feather skirts from Australia and a Sumerian silver lyre.
However, the real strength of this virtual museum is immediately clear when you click on one of the exhibit blobs. Not only do you get an in-depth description of the piece with a hi-res image, but also a Google map of exactly where it was found and, best of all, an audio clip of one of the curators speaking about it. Every piece has an audio clip attached, meaning that there’s hours of material to drink in and absorb.
The sheer amount of love, work and attention behind the British Museum’s Museum of the World is staggering and you should visit it right now, even if you’re not remotely interested in history. If this is the future of museum-visiting, sign me up.
The best virtual museums: Best of the rest
If you still haven’t got your virtual culture fix, try exploring Google’s gigantic collection of images from partner museums around the world, including the Munch Museum in Oslo, the Doge’s Palace in Venice and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan. Most of them aren’t museums per se, just images of the exhibits with a caption, but they’re still a fascinating resource.
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