The Pandemic Guilt Ends Here


It’s 7:20 a.m on April 6, 2020. I cried for the fourth time because I don’t know when I’ll be in a museum again.

Due to the call for social distancing in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. As of the day this is published, I haven’t left my apartment in 27 days, with the exception of neighborhood runs and walks. 

So, here I am fossilizing on my couch, sucking up another hour swiping through my phone, looking at photos I took in museums. I cry again. This is how I’m spending my time during the pandemic, and it’s fine.

As museums and galleries started to temporarily close for the foreseeable future across the world and everyone began staying home, there has been an overflow of conflicting guidance and instructions on what you should do during quarantine. Both our local governments and individuals with access to the internet are giving us rapidly changing orders about how to act.  The latter has suggested and provided how-tos on the following: bake bread; sleep; work on your abs; put on a soap opera; avoid burnout; do nothing; do everything. Want to feel like you’re not doing enough? Here’s a list of great thinkers who were quarantined. William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in quarantine, so…

I’ve done the bare minimum of the sore except obsess about museums.

To even have an opportunity to decide what one will be doing with this newfound free time is exceptional (or maybe not – we’re all watching Tiger King, yes?). Even though I have an underlying health condition, my privileges smack me in the face. My job is salary, and I’m able to work from home. I don’t have to put myself on the frontline of this war as a nurse, grocery store employee, police officer, delivery driver.  I’m not worried about my business collapsing or the next time I can touch my kid because I’m a doctor who has to self-quarantine in my own house. I have toilet paper, chickpeas and multiple jugs of coffee creamer.

Consequently, the “shoulds” to fill my time and my entitlements have made me feel dirty and guilty about this paralyzation from the nostalgia and longing to be in a museum.

I’ve spent much of my free time as far back as I can remember in museums, but I made more visits in the last year or so. I was coming out of a grueling, never-ending season of depression and anxiety. Regardless of type or curation, I frequented museums because I found a guttural fascination, return of unsourced comfort and release of my ego. Whether the gallery was centering on human anatomy, modern art, science, or 90’s grunge; I signed up. I wanted to look outside of myself.

I put extra effort in taking trips to museums and exhibits that hold impressionism and post-impressionism art: works by Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Van Gogh, etc. When the Philadelphia Museum of Art announced a special exhibit entitled The Impressionist’s Eye that would run for four months in 2019, I bought a ticket immediately.

The summer of 2019 was the summer of Segel in Philly; Jason Segel’s new AMC series Dispatches from Elsewhere filmed in the city.  In the second episode of DFE that aired in the first week of March,  Simone (Eve Lindley) is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art where she has an interaction with a big-foot-esque creature and imagined conversation with a woman in an impressionist style self-portrait.

Big-foot-esque creature strolling the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Dispatches from Elsewhere (Photo by: Jessica Kourkounis

My mind kept returning to that particular episode during quarantine. The cast and crew had to be there from April to August. Could I have been there at the same time? How many times did they film in the museum?

Now I’m crying because I’m thinking of a fictional character in an art museum. 

Now I’m crying because I’m thinking of a fictional character in an art museum and I don’t have an opportunity to get some answer to the following: What did Simone think of the art?

At that moment of getting emotional about Simone, I concluded that a part of my attraction to museums was the preoccupation of how others experienced a displayed work as it is seen at same time. The idea that another individual viewing a painting at the same moment as me could walk away from a painting with an entirely different takeaway, opinion and reaction – or lack thereof- as I do. Collective witnessing, when one more or individuals share a reality on a matched timeline, is what makes museums and living in the outside world invigorating. It breeds connection even if the takeaways from the same reality aren’t matched. To accept that living the same truth is to accept that another human may or may not have the same meaning of that truth.

We’re all doing a form of collective witnessing right now that’s a translation of being physically together. We’re sharing a movie together on Netflix Party, cooking the same recipes in separate kitchens, participating in a Philly Citywide Special via Twitter.  We’re asking the same questions: What did you think of the film? How was your meal? Is that beer too hoppy?

Going through a pandemic is our shared reality. The virus has invaded all versions of our worlds. I’m not implying COVID-19 is a virtual happy hour or great work of art (however, Andy’s Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans does resonate with this moment.)  While the truth of this now cannot be changed, surviving and meaning looks vastly different for everyone.  I refuse to call this the “new normal” because in addition to the phrase becoming hackneyed in a matter of a few weeks, it also has semantic implication that our daily lives during quarantine are commonplace and look similar. Some of us are baking bread, sleeping, and working on becoming the talking point of the next generation’s English class. Some of us are transfixed by the thoughts of and longing for their valued actions, like visiting museums. Some of us are fighting against this virus. While still following health and safety government protocols, whatever is pulling you through each day is the right guide to follow.

However, there are a few “shoulds” I will put on everyone during this time; you should show compassion and patience to yourself and others. We’re all grieving the life we thought we were promised, the life we had, and the ones will we lose in this. The way that will allow you to persist through this moment is enough.

I don’t feel as guilty about missing museums as I did at the beginning of the pandemic. I’m not perfect, and releasing my guilt is something I’ve been working on every day since. My tears have been tears of complicated pleasure; thinking about how much I value museums and connection with others over something larger than us all is what is getting me through this pandemic. I feel happiness in the longing for the time when I watch Instagram influencers fill their feeds with images taken of them in front of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, pass a man studying the brushstrokes of Monet’s Water Lilies, and hear my mom to say “I don’t get it” when I’m transfixed by a Rothko. I’ll write this piece. This is what’s keeping me alive, and I don’t feel as bad about it anymore.

When this ends, we have choices to make. Our individual meaning the pandemic doesn’t have to unify us, but the reality has the opportunity to. But the facts remain. This will end. We’re going to come from this changed. There will be delight and decay. We’ll inquire about the ones we lost because of COVID-19. What were they like? Share their memory.

The museum closes, and the exhibits end. For now, I long for the time we each sit so closely around the table and ask each other: How did you survive?

Shealyn Kilroy is a freelance writer. She can be found on Twitter here.