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Without museums, a source of comfort and unity is lost

Visitors studied a John Singer Sargent painting at the Museum of Fine Arts the day before the MFA closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Where were you when the world ended? The moment’s stamped in my brain like a cattle brand: waiting for a tofu curry last Thursday at Empire, a hip eatery (remember those?) in Portland, Maine, where I’d day-tripped to see Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe’s “Tabernacles for Trying Times,” a sparkly, upbeat melange of painting, sculpture, and installation at the Portland Museum of Art.

Those were the days. The COVID-19 outbreak was worrying, but seemed manageable; people were washing and sanitizing and keeping their distance but, however carefully, carrying on. (This was, incredibly, just over a week ago, a reality so distant now that it hardly seems real.)


I’d started that day with an idea about how museums could offer refuge in times of chaos, where we could access a shared humanity — the best of our world, while surrounded by the worst. I remember, as so many do, the terrifying days and weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — the world on edge, waiting for the next cataclysm. And I remember so clearly being among legions of the lost and blank-eyed, numbed and wandering the halls of the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto (where I’m from), craving if not the steadiness of reason, then at least escape.

In the museum’s airy spaces and enveloping interior acres of beauty, we found it. It didn’t make the world better; it would take years for that to happen. But it made us better, in doses and for a time. In the suffocating darkness of those long, jittery days, it was more than you dared to hope for. In its embrace, in quiet, collective grief, it was enough.

After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the Museum of Fine Arts offered free public admission.Globe File photo

The situation in that moment wasn’t so dire — yet. But things were moving quickly. The cultural world was starting to shut down, wary of packing people shoulder to shoulder, front to back, for fear of close-quarter community transmission. As the dominoes started to fall — Harvard’s A.R.T., events presented by Celebrity Series and Global Arts Live were among the first to be shelved — museums were still proceeding more or less as normal. They’d stepped up their sanitation routines, like everyone. But as of that morning — my new ritual was to check, every day — it was business-as-usual.


My mind fell back to those awful days in 2001, to the solace museums could offer with their inherent contemplative calm. They know it better than we do: In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the MFA waived admission fees for that very reason. Now as then, it felt their walls were opening wide to shepherd us to refuge. Long lines and and close quarters are rare at museums, making them unique among cultural offerings: No one stood shoulder to shoulder or traveled in packs; there’s no mosh pit in the MFA’s Monet gallery, no crowd-surfing at Harvard Art Museum’s “Painting Edo.” Looking at art is typically a semi-solitary experience, done at respectful distance, or with a close companion or two. In this time of coronavirus, museums, I thought, would offer us the rare opportunity for arm’s length communion. By their very nature, in this awful time, we could be together, alone.

That’s partly why I made the trip to Portland. Moyer’s and Pepe’s exhibition included a central installation: a thicket of dangling purple crochet work; buoyant, shapely abstract forms suspended on wires high above the gallery floor; polka-dot divans ringing a brightly-colored carpet, the better to recline and stay a while. It was made to be occupied, activated, touched — like the title said, a salve concocted of communal action.


Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe's "Tabernacles for Trying Times" was on view at the Portland Museum of Art.Luc Demers/Courtesy Portland Museum of Art

But I left the museum that day with mixed feelings, my initial hope eroded by the cruel irony of the moment. Who would touch anything handled by others right now? What if you held a ritual act of togetherness, and nobody came? On my way to Empire, I checked my phone: Maine, to that very moment free of COVID-19, had just reported its first case. While I waited for lunch, perched at the window looking over still-busy Congress Street, I saw an e-mail land from the head of communications at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The Met would be closing the next day, March 13, for at least two weeks for a thorough sanitizing; after that, a decision would be made on how to proceed.

As the biggest and busiest museum in the world, in the country’s densest and most international city, it made sense — the ubiquitous “abundance of caution” mantra at work. Less than an hour later, I took a call that hit closer to home: Our city’s four main art museums — the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Harvard Art Museums, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — had issued a joint statement about their own immediate closures. Discounting some hazy reassessment schedules — like everything else, there’s no certainty here — the closures were to be indefinite; just like that, a huge swath of visual culture, and more importantly, social space, signed off and sealed up. I spent the rest of the afternoon on the grim task of thumb-typing a news story about the closures — on my phone, in the car — not knowing when I’d ever see them again.


This is how quickly things changed: I’d started the day with an idea about museums offering comfort in times of crisis, and ended it with the blast doors down everywhere. (Portland, for what it’s worth, stayed open through the weekend before relenting to its own coronavirus closure.)

It took that much to understand how different this was. This isn’t an enemy we can rally against, arm in arm. This is an enemy for whom our shared public life is its fuel. There will be no solace in congregating, even at arm’s length. What had given us strength in that terrible moment, decades ago, would now wither us — some of us to death.

The cruelty of the moment is boundless, borne most by those who have lost people close to them, or those who will. No other casualty, social or otherwise, can compare. Still, other heavy prices are being paid. As monoliths of the ruling culture, our museums had just begun to face up to old failings, to shed their skin, giving more and more people a reason to gather within their walls, where a burgeoning spectrum of our differences was just starting to take hold, to be visible. On that, we press pause. What once gave us hope now puts us in danger. But hold that thought. When all this is over, we’ll gather again. And that slow walk — to something better, for all of us — will have every reason to break into a run.


Murray Whyte can be reached at Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.