If you’re getting tired of staring at your walls, maybe you need a change of scenery, even if you can’t leave the house.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to go visit a museum right about now? While not literally possible, it is virtually possible thanks to a new digital initiative created by Sarah Laursen and Sarah Briggs ’14, both of the Middlebury College Museum of Art.
In early March—before social distancing went into full effect, but with the threat of COVID-19 looming—Laursen, the museum’s curator of Asian Art and professor of the history of art and architecture, and Briggs, a Sabarsky graduate fellow, met for coffee and shared their concerns about the prospects of museums and art galleries needing to close due to public health concerns. They came up with the idea of a website featuring “virtual exhibits”—360-degree tours of art, history, and science museums and galleries across Vermont. They envisioned the site as a vehicle for bringing enrichment to homebound students, parents, educators, and even “non-museum people,” as well as a way to drive web traffic to venues that, for the time being, could no longer welcome in-person visitors.
With help from the Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Curators Group, Laursen and Briggs soon had 15 participants (the number has since grown to over two dozen, with more joining every day). The women quickly developed a tutorial to show museum and gallery staff how to upload text and use Google software to capture 360-degree images; Laursen and Briggs, using ThingLink, then used those files to post interactive content for each venue.
The site comes with a viewing guide, which includes not only ideas for kids’ scavenger hunts and art projects related to the exhibits but also advice on “slow looking,” which encourages viewers to imagine themselves walking through an actual exhibit and taking time to appreciate and think about each work rather than clicking quickly from one object to the next.
Laursen and Briggs are proud of how quickly they brought the site from concept to launch and of how popular it has already become (in its first 15 days, it saw over 5,200 unique visits and 11,500 pageviews). Though they created Vermont Art Online as a response to unfortunate circumstances, they say they hope it will live on after COVID-19 passes. “I know it sounds cheesy,” Laursen says, “but rather than throwing up our hands, we’re looking at this crisis as an opportunity.
“This wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in this unique, crazy, historical moment.”
This story is part of our new magazine channel “Dispatches,” in which we will be deliver new content to readers on a weekly basis. You can read more about this effort here.