By Zara Kesterton (@ZaraKesterton)
15 March 2020: we were beginning to realise just how much of an impact the coronavirus pandemic would have on all our lives. One of my friends messaged a group chat, ‘Now that we aren’t allowed to touch anything ever again does it spell the end of material culture? Is the new textual turn approaching?’
It was half a joke, and yet my friend’s message hit uncomfortably close to home. My research focuses on eighteenth-century dress, and that very week I had been due to visit two different museums to gain invaluable hands-on experience of surviving garments. Having spent much of the past year making a case for why visiting objects and (if possible) handling them in person is a vital part of material culture research, the lockdown felt like a blow. Furthermore, it is a deeply worrying time for many of those who work in the already-underfunded heritage industry. Museums and galleries might not recover financially from the economic uncertainties of the months that lie ahead.
Speculating on the future of historical research can appear ungrateful for the privilege of even being able to imagine life after Covid-19 as we watch the death toll rise every day. Yet, for those of us who are lucky enough to be healthy and safe, our thoughts inevitably turn to how the familiar landscape of academia might look different on the other side of the pandemic.
I find hope in the fact that quarantine seems to have inspired a renewed focus on the materials we have close at hand. Art has become an especially powerful element in the ever-expanding online lists of ‘what to do under lockdown’. Many people are turning to traditional crafts – knitting, embroidery, drawing – as a way to cope with the strains of isolation. Even as we are more involved than ever with our screens, we are also seeking solace in things that we can accomplish with our hands.
In another positive and amusing result of global lockdown, institutions such as the Metropolitan, the Getty and the Rijksmuseum have been encouraging people to reproduce famous paintings at home using household objects. Some of the images have gone viral: the re-appropriation of familiar items is inherently very funny. There also seems to be an underlying desire to communicate with people around the world through a shared medium of instantly recognisable art. The cover image is my own attempt to recreate Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s c. 1770 painting, Young Girl Reading.
Recreating scenes from famous paintings reminds me of the tableaux vivants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which aristocratic households and theatres experimented with art scenes made from living, moving, tangible bodies. Instead of displaying the result at a fashionable salon party, housemates quarantined together in 2020 post the results on Instagram.
In my work, I am a proponent of reconstruction history as a useful tool for more focused ‘looking’ at art. Therefore, I wonder how many people recreating historic paintings have noticed things they might not have seen before in the images. I certainly found myself interrogating how it felt to hold the same pose as the artist’s model, how to pin my hair like that, and how to get the effect of that ruff just right!
In addition to re-examining familiar artworks, a handful of social media accounts have introduced their followers to under-appreciated paintings. The musician and presenter, Peter Brathwaite, has brilliantly recreated a host of images featuring black subjects. Using the forum of a viral challenge is a valuable step forwards in reintegrating black lives into the art history timeline.
Staging images from paintings is just one of the ways that people have been using their time to learn more about art. Ten thousand of us have tuned in to YouTube to watch the art dealer Philip Mould talk about some of his favourite pieces in his personal collection at home – although admittedly the enjoyment of getting a glimpse of Mould’s beautiful house, and his dog Cedric, are almost as big a draw as the art. Even more traditional art spaces are rapidly opening up to provide universal access, without the high ticket prices usually charged for ‘must-see’ exhibitions or shows. Virtual experiences may not replace the real thing, but they have the advantage of being entirely accessible for those who might struggle to climb stairs, sit through a show, or have difficulty navigating crowded rooms. This period of enforced confinement may well help to bring art into the homes of people who might not be able to visit a gallery or museum ordinarily.
At first glance, the paranoia brought by the virus surrounding touch and physical contact might seem to have damaged the practicalities of research into material culture. However, when we finally emerge from this period of social distancing, temporary confinement will hopefully have brought us a renewed understanding of just how important the material world is for all of us.
 See, for example, ‘Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams’ at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Paris: YouTube, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLWDWzMrkBE&t=719s; Official Twelfth Night Featuring Tamsin Greig | Free National Theatre Live Full Performance (London: YouTube, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aig5ObghHS4.
 Carlie Porterfield, ‘Museum Challenge To Recreate Art At Home Goes Viral In Coronavirus Quarantine’, Forbes, 1 April 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2020/04/01/museum-challenge-to-recreate-art-at-home-goes-viral-in-coronavirus-quarantine/.
 Constance Classen, The Museum of the Senses: Experiencing Art and Collections, Sensory Studies Series (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 36.
Featured image: Author’s own.
Thanks to Peter Brathwaite and the owners of the Covid Classics account for kindly providing permission to link to their images in this post.