With the closure of archives, museums, and historical sites due to the quarantine, art historians like me have lost a central aspect of our work: the physical engagement with artifacts. What I’ve most missed in all of this, though, hasn’t been the material objects per se. Instead, it’s been the pleasure and insight that arise from interacting with them in the presence of colleagues, friends, and other appreciative viewers. In the current circumstances, I’ve come to understand that art is like a good meal: something can be truly savored only with others.
This is especially true with the Renaissance material I teach and study. So many period objects were consciously designed to provoke conversation. Accordingly, deprived of a lively audience, they’ve lost some essential part of their reality. The problem is compounded when it comes to architecture—my subject of expertise. After all, as Vitruvius believed, this art form was invented to foster human society. However necessary, timed visits and social distancing at museums and public monuments compromise the communal enjoyment of our artistic and built heritage.
In the past year, I’ve tried to recover a sense of scholarly community through virtual reading groups, writing sessions, and conferences. Would it be possible, I now wonder, also to experiment with choreographing less scripted occasions—for sharing an experience before an object or performance, or in an architectural space?
MORGAN NG, architectural historian and assistant professor, Yale University