The need for social distancing may have forced museums and historic sites around the world to close their doors for now, but many have made their spaces, exhibits and collections available to anyone with a digital device and a decent web connection. Some offer 360-degree tours, like the one that takes you into every nook and cranny of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Here are 8 standout virtual history sites worth exploring.
1. Xi’an Warriors
It was one of the most stunning archaeological finds of the 20th century. In 1974, farmers digging a well stumbled across a life-sized clay figure that, government archaeologists later discovered, belonged to a vast army of terra cotta soldiers created to protect China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in the afterlife. The massive mausoleum, created around 210 B.C., houses some 8,000 warriors, along with hundreds of chariots and horses—all arranged in battle formation. In 2017, a Chinese company, inspired by Google Street View, created an awe-inspiring virtual experience that lets visitors swoop down into the tomb and “walk” among the soldiers, viewing their unique facial expressions and traces of their original colorful paint at close range. You don’t need to read Chinese to appreciate the enormity of it all.
2. Smithsonian Museum of American History
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History bills itself as the greatest single collection of U.S. history in the world, home to more than 1.8 million objects that each, in some fundamental way, defines the American experience. The museum offers about 100 online exhibits from its encyclopedic collections, each with a mix of photos, video, graphics and text on topics ranging from the life of Abe Lincoln (yep, they’ve got the stovepipe hat) to the development of the first artificial heart to the evolution of voting machines and even an array of vintage lunch boxes.
3. The Museum of Flight
War planes. Spy planes. Spacecraft. Gliders. Kit planes. Eccentric contraptions. This sprawling museum, adjacent to the Boeing complex south of Seattle, Washington, is considered one of the world’s largest and best air and space museums, with more than 150 aircraft, 25,000-plus aviation-related artifacts and a huge array of exhibits that collectively chronicle man’s quest to take to the skies.
Flight geeks could easily get lost in its vast searchable and browsable database of those collections while 360-degree tours let you step inside a dozen iconic aircraft—including the Boeing 747, the Concorde and the museum’s full-scale model of the space shuttle orbiter used for training astronauts.
4. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum
FDR, America’s only four-term president, presided over the nation during two of its most trying ordeals: the Great Depression and World War II. This online experience walks users room by room through the exhibits in his extensive presidential library and museum in Hyde Park, New York, drawing together a wealth of original documents, artifacts, videos, 360-degree tours and more.
Together, they illustrate everything from FDR’s little-known assassination attempt to his New Deal policies and wartime decisions to Eleanor’s significant role. It’s easy to lose track of time clicking through all the fascinating letters, whether it’s from a constituent exhorting him to “discontinue being a smiling, wasteful and fickle prima donna politician” to one from Albert Einstein strenuously detailing his objections to the atomic bomb.
Calling all space geeks: Report to the NASA site for ultimate fun in the final frontier. Get the full scoop on all the key NASA programs past and present, from the Hubble Telescope to the Mars Rover to the upcoming Parker Solar Probe. Check out the History hub to dive deep into photos, videos and articles about all their historic missions.
Enjoy a motherlode of space images with the cache of ultra-high-def videos taken from various missions—like the virtual tour of the moon in 4K, enabled by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Spacecraft. For astronaut wannabes, virtual tours abound of NASA’s various research and training facilities—putting users right inside a supersonic wind tunnel, a zero-gravity lab, flight simulators, a space environments complex and much more.
6. American Battlefield Trust Virtual Battlefield Tours
Most on-site battlefield tours require a leap of imagination: the ability to walk around a perfectly peaceful open field and overlay a mental movie of smoke and combat and fallen warriors, all the while considering the military strategy and broader political stakes. ABT’s website may not offer the sunshine on your back, but it marries the setting, action and context far more seamlessly, with its 360-degree virtual tours of more than 20 American Revolution and Civil War battlefields.
In the Gettysburg tour alone, there are 15 different stops—no walking required—each of which features clickable icons with granular detail about all the whos, whats and whys. And when you’re done touring, be sure to explore the site’s other robust resources, from battle summaries to generals’ biographies.
7. National Museum of African American History and Culture
While there are plenty of current and past exhibits to explore online here, the real draw is the collections. In the site’s Collections Stories area, museum staff members share objects that resonate for them historically or culturally, whether it’s Muhammad Ali’s training gear…the dress Carlotta Walls, one of the so-called Little Rock Nine, wore when she walked the gauntlet of angry mobs on her first day integrating Little Rock Central High School…or shards of stained glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four little girls.
And if you’ve got lots of time to explore, browse the museum’s vast open-source collections, brimming with letters, documents, photos and artifacts. They convey the wide-ranging African American experience—from a slave ship manifest to a poster of Sidney Poitier’s film To Sir, With Love.
8. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. presents powerful online exhibits brimming with resources such as videos, timelines, glossaries and image galleries rich with potent original artifacts. Themes include Collaboration & Complicity, Nazi Propaganda, Americans and the Holocaust, Racial Health Policies and more. Elsewhere on the museum’s site: a deep archive of survivor interviews, moving artifacts like a gallery of 600 ID cards of Holocaust victims and a place to browse the museum’s huge, sobering collections.