Like live performances, a visit to a museum or art gallery can be skillfully replicated online, but nothing beats the real thing. That’s why, pre-pandemic, tourists would wait in long queues to enter Paris’s Louvre and be in the physical presence of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Even putting aside great art as a bucket-list destination, it’s always best appreciated “in person.”
“It’s three dimensional, it’s not two dimensional, that’s the point,” says Ian Dejardin, executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. “These days we’re used to dealing with images on a flat surface, on a screen, but it’s not the same.”
When you stand in front of one of the classic works in the McMichael’s Group of Seven centenary retrospective, A Like Vision, you’re able to see the texture of the paint, the brushstrokes, the mixture of colours and other techniques that allowed the artist to achieve the overall effect. Size matters, too. The first thing that strikes visitors to the dinosaur galleries in the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal is the sheer enormity of those prehistoric fossils. You could never get that visceral effect virtually. The same wow factor will be in play—public health regulations permitting—this summer, when the ROM opens its Great Whales: Up Close and Personal exhibition.
That show includes the full skeletons of a sperm, right and blue whale—the latter almost 30 metres in length. “Talk about trying to understand the wonders of nature,” enthuses ROM director and CEO Josh Basseches. “The sense of awe that comes from walking along a skeleton of that size—or looking at the jaws of a sperm whale with eight-inch teeth – has so much more impact when you can do it in the flesh.”
How things are presented in a museum or gallery is also an often- unappreciated art. Exhibitions are painstakingly designed, sometimes years in advance, Dejardin says. “Curators spend their lives thinking in terms of juxtapositions of works of art and what that does, not only intellectually, but also aesthetically. Everything is carefully worked out for an impact.” Ironically, he adds, if a show is designed properly, “most viewers won’t notice.”
Then there’s the experience of visiting the museum building itself. It may be an architectural marvel in the middle of a city, like the ROM in Toronto, or an out-of-town retreat whose surroundings enhance a visitor’s experience. The McMichael, in Kleinburg, Ont., is tucked within a wooded landscape which evokes the kind of northern Ontario forests painted by the Group of Seven. Another rural destination, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, near Dresden, Ont., sweeps visitors back to what was once a 19th-century Black settlement, co-founded by former slave-turned-preacher and author Josiah Henson. The museum includes the restored home of Henson, whose life inspired the classic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the church where he preached and his family cemetery.
You can tour them virtually in the time of COVID, but it’s hard to envision life on the settlement without actually being there.
“It’s a very powerful and very moving site,” says Dawson Bridger, manager of public education and community development at the Ontario Heritage Trust. Owned by the trust since 2005, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has become one of its most popular attractions in recent years, thanks to the growing interest in Black history.
Every Aug. 1 it hosts an Emancipation Day ceremony, marking the abolition of slavery in Canada, that draws a capacity crowd of up to a thousand people. “An event like that is about fostering and celebrating community,” Bridger says, noting that museums also play the role of a gathering place.
Jasmina Jovanovic, executive director of the Art Gallery of Algoma, agrees. She says the Sault Ste. Marie- based gallery’s best-loved event is its annual Winter Festival of Art. It brings together AGA members in a friendly art competition that attracts submissions from throughout the Algoma District and even the U.S. The exhibition’s opening “is usually our biggest of the year,” Jovanovic says. But this year, it had to pivot to Zoom, with a camera roving through the empty gallery, from picture to picture – making for a strangely eerie celebration. The participants were grateful, she says, but it was no substitute for the socializing that normally makes an exhibition opening such an exciting occasion.
“At an opening, you talk about the art on the wall, you connect with other people, you exchange your thoughts and feelings,” she says.
In fact, while some people enjoy wandering solo through museums, for most it’s a social activity. That’s why, if for no other reason, museum directors have little doubt that visitors will leave their screens and come flocking back once it’s safe to do so. “People are craving that feeling of being together and sharing,” Jovanovic says.
Ontario’s museums are more than ready for them. Many have exhibitions in preparation, or already installed, for when they can finally fling open their doors again. “Even coming out of COVID, museums are some of the safest indoor spaces in the world,” the ROM’s Basseches assures. “It’s a way to get out of the house, to be with friends, family and children, and get everybody talking.”
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