Virtual museum and monument tours: how to explore the wonders of history from your home

Many museums have opened up their doors to the wonders of virtual reality, letting you ‘walk around’ and admire exhibitions from the comfort of your own home. Emma Slattery Williams of BBC History Revealed shares just a few of the museums, artefacts and historical spaces that you can explore from afar…

The British Museum in London
1

The Vatican

Where? Vatican City

What? A virtual reality tour

You don’t need to be in Rome to visit the smallest sovereign state in the world. The Vatican has created a series of virtual tours that let you loose inside the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church – the home of the Pope and one of the most important churches in Christianity, St Peter’s Basilica.The Vatican City traces its history back to the fourth century, when a church was built over the tomb of St Peter – one of Jesus’s 12 apostles and widely regarded as the founder of the Catholic Church. In the 16th century, a new church replaced the 1,200-year-old one, and it’s still standing today. This is the current St Peter’s Basilica – and the tomb of St Peter is believed to be directly under the high altar. The basilica is a renowned piece of Renaissance architecture.

A range of 360° virtual tours will transport you around some of the grand rooms and chapels within the Vatican, allowing you to admire the exquisite paintings and sculptures of one of the largest art collections in the world. You can also take a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel; one of the highlights of a trip to the Vatican, the chapel is perhaps most famous for its impressive ceiling mural, painted by Michelangelo. It’s also where the papal conclave (the election of a new pope) typically takes place.

The interior of the Sistine Chapel
The interior of the Sistine Chapel. (Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Vatican boasts many museums within its complexes, too, and it has opened up a number of these collections to virtual visitors. One that you can peruse through your phone is the Pio Clementino Museum. Named after the two popes who supervised its creation, Clement XIV and Pius VI, it houses ancient Greek and Roman sculptures as well as the finely-carved sarcophagus of St Helena – the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was famously the first Roman ruler to adopt the Christian faith.

2

Petra

Where? Petra, Jordan

What? A virtual reality trek and tour

The ancient city of Petra in Jordan is one of the world’s most valuable archaeological sites. Known as the ‘Rose City’, every dwelling, tomb and temple was painstakingly carved directly into the sandstone cliffs – with the rockface’s vibrant colour giving many of the buildings a distinctive rose-pink lustre.

Settled by the Nabataeans in the 3rd century BC, the city flourished until at least the 6th century AD. There’s evidence of a Crusader outpost in the vicinity in the 12th century, but after that the ruins were lost to the Western world until their rediscovery in the 19th century. Since then they have attracted worldwide attention – particularly from Hollywood directors. The city has often been used as a filming location, perhaps most famously as a backdrop for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: the eastern entrance to Petra inspired the film’s invented Canyon of the Crescent Moon.

A classic view of El Deir, the monastery in Petra.
A classic view of El Deir, the monastery in Petra. (Image by RF Getty Images)

Google has created a virtual tour of the mysterious city that allows you to clamber among the cliffs and experience this ancient wonder first-hand. Trekking through the city, you can explore a number of locations, accompanied by an audio track that’s brimming with fascinating facts about Petra.

 

3

Palace of Versailles

Where? Versailles, France

What? A virtual reality tour

The marvellous imagination of King Louis XIV transformed what was once a small hunting lodge into an extravagant palace that became the home of the French court. The Sun King wanted to create a royal residence that would be the envy of the world, and it seems he succeeded: his successors continued to add to the palace until revolution rocked the country in 1789, and the palace today is a sprawl of 2,300 rooms, each more elegant than the last.

A virtual tour (offered by Google) takes you into some of the palace’s grandest rooms – including the Hall of Mirrors, where the walkway’s glittering chandeliers and opulent gold furnishings are dizzyingly reflected in the myriad of mirrors that line the walls. The hall was also the site where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, thereby ending World War I.

Some of the palace’s past and present exhibitions can also be explored online.

4

The Anne Frank House

Where? Amsterdam, the Netherlands

What? A virtual reality tour

In 1942, Otto Frank and his family went into hiding in a secret annex above Otto’s offices. The family had moved to the Netherlands from their native Germany in the summer of 1933, after the Nazi Party’s rise to power. The Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940, and two years later Otto decided to take his wife and two daughters into hiding. They moved, suddenly and secretly, into an annex within his office, where they were soon joined by another Jewish family, the Pels, and a family friend, dentist Fritz Pfeffer. The Franks remained here for 761 days.

This virtual tour lets you experience what it was like in the cluster of rooms hidden behind a bookcase. It was here, secluded from the outside world save for the small cadre of helpers in office beyond, that young Anne Frank would chronicle her and family’s lives in her diary. If you have a virtual reality headset, you can also navigate the annex in VR.

The bookcase in Anne Frank's house
The virtual tour of Anne Frank’s House lets you experience what it was like in the cluster of rooms hidden behind a bookcase. (Image by Corbis Documentary / Getty Images Plus)

Anne’s last diary entry was on 1 August 1944. Three days later, the Nazis raided the annex; the Franks, the Pels and Pfeffer were sent to Nazi concentration camps. Otto was the only one to survive, freed from
Auschwitz when the Soviets liberated it in 1945. Anne and her sister Margot ended up in Bergen-Belsen, where they both died of typhus – aged 15 and 19 respectively – just a few months before it was liberated. Otto returned to Amsterdam, where he discovered that Anne’s diary had been found and saved by one of their former helpers. It was published as The Diary of a Young Girl in 1947, and since been reprinted in 60 languages.

5

The Colosseum

Where? Rome, Italy

What? A virtual reality tour

Imagine the roar of the crowd as a gladiator stands victorious in the Colosseum’s pit, blood-stained sword in hand, having just bested their foe in deadly combat. From grand mock battles to one-on-one bouts and grisly executions, the Colosseum was the heart of life in ancient Rome and could hold around 50,000 spectators. Since 2010, visitors to the arena have been able to navigate the underground tunnels known as the hypogeum, where the animals and warriors who awaited their turn in the arena were kept.

Now, with the help of Google, you can explore the Colosseum’s labyrinthine walkways and virtually stand in the grand amphitheatre that was once home to Rome’s greatest – and bloodiest – entertainment. How do you think you would have fared?

 

6

The British Museum

Where? London, UK

What? Walkthrough and Collection explorer

The British Museum houses some of the most famous artefacts from across the world (and across time) – and now you can stroll through the museum online. As well as virtually roaming the museum’s galleries, you can also look in depth at their collections. From the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles to Hoa Hakananai’a – the moai statue from Easter Island – there are priceless objects from a wealth of civilisations waiting to be explored.

7

The National Computing Museum

Where? Milton Keynes, UK

What? A virtual tour

It seems only right that the location for the National Computing Museum is in the grounds of Bletchley Park, the centre of Allied codebreaking during World War II and the site of the development of the world’s first computer. Most of the museum’s exhibits can be explored via a virtual tour, including the world’s oldest working computer, the Harwell Dekatron. The museum also holds a replica of the device used to crack Germany’s Enigma code.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park, HQ of the Allied cryptographers during WW2. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

 

8

Museo Nacional de Anthropologia

Where? Mexico City, Mexico

What? A virtual tour

Mexico’s national museum, located in Mexico City, has some of the country’s most important pre-Columbian artefacts, including the Aztec Calendar stone, known as the Stone of the Sun, giant head sculptures from the Olmec civilisation and treasures from the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Another highlight of the museum is the supposed headdress of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma – a man who, it’s said, drank 50 cups of hot chocolate a day to enhance his ‘prowess’. Get up close to some of these amazing finds with the museum’s 360° virtual tour.

 

9

The National Museum of Natural History

Where? Washington, DC, USA

What? A virtual tour

Run by the Smithsonian Institution, this venerable edifice is one of the most visited natural history museums in the world. Go online to take a walk through the exhibits, which range from the dinosaurs that used to roam America (including a 11.6m-long Tyrannosaurus rex), the world-famous (and quite unusually blue) Hope Diamond and a fossilised Neanderthal.

The Tyrannosaurus rex on display was found in 1988. It’s unusual in that more than 80 per cent of its skeleton was uncovered.

Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History
A sculpture of Charles Darwin is displayed in front of an authentic Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

 

10

The Louvre

Where? Paris, France

What? A virtual tour

Standing in the ground of the former royal palace of the same name, the Louvre Musuem is the largest art museum in the world. In just a few clicks of a mouse, you could be admiring the opulent Grand Salon in the apartments of Napoleon III before casting your gaze on the sculptures of the Ancient Greeks. In addition to its most famous resident – Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’– the Louvre houses one of the world’s largest Egyptian collections, a combination of objects from the French royal collection, as well as from Napoleon’s Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign in 1798. This latter campaign led to the discovery of thousands of artefacts and gave birth to Europe’s fascination with Egypt and the rise of Egyptology.

We update this page regularly, so keep checking back for new recommendations of virtual tours. Last updated 21 April 2020

This content first appeared in BBC History Revealed magazine

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