Visits to the Museum: An Unexpected Respite in Uncertain Times

Even though Covid cases in the United States are steadily declining, many people are still trying to stay socially distanced. During warmer months, it was easier to see friends safely as people could comfortably stay outside. I spent much of my summer in Central Park, having socially distanced picnics or going for walks with friends. Outdoor dining was also pleasant in the summer. In New York City, where I live, other outdoor activities were visiting Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Botanical Gardens and the High Line. However, in the winter, these experiences are not only much less enjoyable but sometimes even impossible. 

Indoor dining closed soon after I returned home from Amherst in early December. Many people did not feel comfortable dining indoors because of the lack of masks worn during meals. But even as many traditional gathering places became inaccessible, other opportunities opened. Surprisingly, for me and many others, the pandemic kindled interests in one of the only safe indoor activities available — visiting museums.

With masks mandated and capacity limited, visiting a museum felt very safe relative to many alternatives. As someone who isn’t the most artistic or creative person, I don’t usually choose to go to museums when I have other options. However, I have genuinely enjoyed my experiences at museums in the past few months and was very glad to be able to gain new experiences despite the ongoing pandemic. 

I went to two museums over winter break and had completely different but memorable experiences at each of them. I first went to the The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) the day the first big snowstorm hit New York in December. I went relatively late in the day and stayed until the museum closed. The late hour and the impending snowstorm meant the museum was incredibly empty. In most exhibits we explored, my friend and I were the only ones in the room and, if not, we were only accompanied by one or two other people. The emptiness of the museum was enjoyable because I didn’t have to crowd around other people to look closely at certain paintings — even the most well-known paintings were easily viewable.

When I previously went to the MoMA in the February before the pandemic, the Frida Kahlo paintings were my favorite exhibit, but at that time, it was somewhat difficult to enjoy them fully because the room felt unbearably crowded. I didn’t even get a chance to look at all the pieces. Going in December, this was not a problem, allowing me to truly appreciate Frida Kahlo’s iconic art, such as “Self Portrait with Cropped Hair.” It almost felt like we had rented out the museum just for our own personal enjoyment. 

The value of the experience was furthered by the fact that I was with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in over a month, so we had a lot to catch up on. Usually, if we were at the park or one of our houses, it would be easy to chat for hours, but in a museum, this is much harder. This time, however, we could sit on a bench and talk for as long as we wanted without worrying about letting other people sit or disturbing others because we were too loud — all with the added benefit of beautiful art surrounding us. 

Not only did I truly enjoy the art at the MoMA, but it also felt practically impossible for me to contract Covid-19 in such an empty space. Anyone I did see was well over six-feet away and wearing a mask. 

More recently, in late January, I went to the Whitney Museum of American Art with a friend in Manhattan. It was one of the coldest days of the season, so while we originally planned to see each other outside, we realized this would not be possible. Instead, we booked last-minute tickets to the Whitney. 

The art at the Whitney was very cutting-edge. One of my personal favorite pieces was an intensely bedazzled, full-size replica of a kitchen, simply named “Kitchen.” The detail in this work by Liza Lou was incredible, and my friend and I spent a long time admiring all the different aspects that were clearly constructed with great care and time. For example, the whisk on the electric mixer in the kitchen had batter on it — a detail I would never remember to include if I was drawing or recreating a kitchen. “Kitchen” is made out of paper mache and bead mosaics, and the strong colors and sparkles brightened my day. The tiles on the floor were different from the tiles on the wall, and while this may seem like it would clash, it just made the piece even more eye-catching and unique.   

My other favorite experience at the Whitney was watching  “Sojourner,” a short film that was part of an exhibit called “Mutualities” by Cauleen Smith. “Sojourner” follows a group of women as they carry signs with the words of jazz composer and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane through multiple locations. Throughout the film, Alice Coltrane and Sojourner Truth’s writings can be heard as the women march forward. The film was inspiring and empowering, and unlike anything I had seen previously. I hadn’t been to a movie theater or anything similar since before the start of the pandemic, and when I watch a movie or video at home, I am usually also doing something else at the same time, such as surfing my phone or talking to whoever I’m with. Being in the darkened viewing room with others around me also enjoying the film, I was able to fully immerse myself in what I was watching. It was a very refreshing and relaxing experience to watch something meaningful without any distractions.  

Despite all these enjoyable aspects, the Whitney felt very crowded. As I mentioned, one of my favorite parts about being at the MoMA was the emptiness and the ease with which I could talk with my friend. This was much more difficult in the packed exhibits at the Whitney. 

Many people found it difficult to find joy during the beginning of the pandemic, when almost everything was closed and seeing friends felt too risky. Compared to the monotonous schedule I had of waking up, going for a short walk and spending the rest of the day inside during early quarantine, being able to visit museums and experience art and culture felt very valuable. With so many daily activities being moved to a virtual format, such as most of my classes and meetings, it was incredibly refreshing to be in person, engaging with others and appreciating impressive art.