I remember vividly sitting at my desk and browsing through the various virtual tours that had sprung up in response to the museum closures caused by the pandemic. It was wet and dark outside as it often is in Oxford, so I decided that some sunshine (albeit virtual) was necessary to lift my spirits. I ended up choosing a simple video tour of Peel Castle, which looms over my home town of Peel on the Isle of Man. Although it was not as interactive as some virtual tours (such as the Bodleian library virtual tour), the images of the Castle evoked some feelings of nostalgia for past school visits, and long summer trips to the beach where it felt as if the sun would always shine.
I would be lying if I didn’t also admit to feeling some homesickness from these bright and cheery pictures, which I understand is perfectly natural for a fresher but painful nevertheless. Running the gauntlet between nostalgia and sadness is a normal battle to fight in the age of Covid 19, but these virtual tours seem to be a perfect storm of these two aspects of life during a pandemic. The viewer of the tour might have similar expectations to a person who has physically visited the site (especially those who have visited pre-pandemic), so it can be very difficult to reconcile your expectations with the reality of being stuck behind a computer screen in College or at home.
The Bodleian library tour on the other hand brought up some rather unexpected emotions for me. Apart from a tour during the interview process I have never set foot in the Bodleian to study, so the virtual tour seemed like a nice way to familiarise myself with this iconic part of Oxford life. This tour is reminiscent of Google Earth as it gives the viewer a 360° of the most well known areas of the library, including the Divinity School and Radcliffe Camera, along with information and slide shows accompanying each area. I found it informative, but something was missing that would have helped me feel more upbeat about this corner of Oxford life I was yet to explore: the students. Nearly every area of this tour is devoid of human activity, which gives the large spaces a rather desolate feeling. Of course, I understand that this is helpful to a tourist that would like to see all of the beautiful architecture, and the tour is a fascinating insight into the history of the building. The absence of students in the library gave me a strange feeling of hollowness, which I think could only really be rectified by finally visiting in person.
On a more positive note, virtual trips have been a really interesting way of engaging with my degree. My first term at Oxford was spent studying Archaic Greece, which required some knowledge of sites such as the Acropolis in Athens. With the assistance of Google Earth and a few virtual tour videos, I felt a little more confident in understanding which parts of the ancient plans I was peering at remain standing today. Unlike the tour of the familiar Peel Castle, my ‘visit’ to Athens has made me feel more determined than ever that one day I will go to Greece or Rome and actually see the things I’ve read about. For just a few minutes, virtual trips can provide a feeling of escapism. Virtual tours are obviously not the cure for the feelings generated by the pandemic but, like their physical counterparts, are a temporary escape.