So what if you live nowhere near cultural epicenters like Paris, London, or New York? In this day and age, the wonders of human creation and artistic expression are never more than a few mouse clicks away.
Virtual museums have been around nearly as long as the Web itself. Established in the dark ages of 1993, the Museum of Computer Art (MoCA) is among the earliest such pioneers. Since then, many of the art world's prestigious institutions—from the Louvre to the Guggenheim—have followed suit and digitized their collections. Even Google has waded into the high art arena with The Google Cultural Institute. In fact, the practice has become quite widespread, which has also allowed smaller organizations and lesser-known artists achieve a level of exposure impossible before the advent of the Internet.
Here's how to navigate just a few of the world's top museums from a browser window. Culture!
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Boston's MFA hosts a staggeringly extensive online collection incorporating works from around the world spanning thousands of years and including the mediums of drawing, painting, sculpture, and ornamentation—even musical instruments. The MFA offers two services: You can explore the museum's various galleries online, clicking through floor by floor and gallery by gallery, or you can take an interactive tour centered around themes ranging from jewelry to John Singer Sargent watercolors. And if you find a work that you really like, you can order an archival replica of it. There's no stated price for the service so assume expensive.
Perhaps the most famous art museum on the planet, the Louvre is home to tens of thousands of works spanning human history and is dotted with masterpieces from the likes of Michelangelo and da Vinci. The museum hosts digital replicas of some 35,000 of these works online in a massive searchable database complete with information about each piece, the artist that created it, and commentary and analysis by the museum's curators. Just look at what comes up for Mona Lisa. Unfortunately, however, the images are not available in a large, zoomable format; they don't allow you to get up close and really examine the artist's technique. For that, you'll need to get to Paris.
New York City's Guggenheim Museum offers its visitors a unique visual experience. Rather than divide its collection into rigid departments, the museum's curators freely distribute pieces up the facility's long-winding promenade, mixing up-and-coming artists alongside masters like Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. If only it could arrange its online offerings in a similar manner. As they are now, the Guggenheim's online collection is starkly divided by artist, medium, and age of the work. On the other hand, the museum does provide extensive background information on all of its works and featured artists, which should greatly help neophyte modern art fans tell which end of the painting goes up.
The National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art was once one of the largest private collections in the country, belonging to financier and former Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon. But not only did Mellon donate his substantial art collection to the American people in 1936, he went ahead and financed the museum to hold it as well. The collection includes historic paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the Americas, Europe, and East Asia. Well over 30,000 works in all are available for your online perusal with an intense zoom feature that can reveal individual brush strokes.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum
For an all-American art experience, the Smithsonian's American Art Museum offers dozens upon dozens of permanent online collections spanning our nation's 237-year existence. From indigenous basketry to Civil War crafts to the art of the Harlem Renaissance, the SAAM's online collection reads like a cultural history of the nation.
The British Museum
The British Museum's online collection rivals that of the Louvre. With works spanning the globe and history from ancient African tribal relics to modern Japanese pop art. While the online category offerings are certainly extensive, they suffer the same relatively small image sizes as the Louvre, preventing you from examining the works as well as you'd want.
Almost Everywhere Else
In the few years since Google Street View began mapping the insides of the world's museums, it's amassed a huge collection of tourables big and small. Not only can you walk through each of the 46 offered locations, you can click through to Google Art Project for a closer, cleanly formatted look at individual pieces, complete with helpful descriptions.
It's important to remember that while these online museum tours provide a valuable and important cultural resource, they're no substitute for actually being in the room with a masterpiece. If you enjoy art, you owe it to yourself to visit these institutions in person. But at least when you do you'll have a solid head start.