Shelter Smarts: Expand Your Mind, Not Your Waistline

If you’re not going anywhere for awhile – thanks, Red China – you’re probably facing the temptation to sit around, think about all of the things that you could be doing but can’t, and then inhale way too much food or booze to make yourself feel better.

Allow me to offer you an alternative.

Yesterday, a friend posted a request on her IG stories for some creative ideas on how to pass the time during the quarantine of indeterminate length that many of us are experiencing at the moment. I suggested the Yale video course on the history of Roman Architecture, which I’ve recommended to my readers before, but it got me thinking about whether I could offer some suggestions on similar resources for my readers who may also find themselves going a bit stir crazy. So whether you’re on your own, or you have a house full of rugrats to educate, here are some YouTube channels by category that I can recommend for making the most of this mind-expansion opportunity.


Now, before delving into some of said resources, I want to offer a word of warning. Not all of the material available on these channels is suitable for children, and some of it manifests certain points of view with which I myself, or some of my readers, may not be in agreement. My best advice is to treat these like you would browsing in a bookshop. If Simone de Beauvoir does not interest you – and good gracious why should she – just move on past until you get to Raymond Queneau.


Most of the world’s major art museums, not surprisingly, have YouTube channels, but not all of them are created equal. Without naming names, there are some institutions whose video content producers seem to assume that the majority of their potential viewers are rather stupid, or have such short attention spans that they can only sit still for under 3 minutes. That being said, there are several resources with longer-format videos available for you to stream, which include not only lectures and panel discussions, but also in many cases documentary films and behind-the-scenes video of processes such as conservation and installation.

Two of the best outlets in this regard are the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, and the National Gallery in London. The former in particular regularly hosts in-depth lectures from art experts who come to DC from around the world, while the latter often uploads interesting gallery talks in which curators take visitors to an art object in the museum and discuss it at length, pointing out details of production or relationship to other known works, often in the same collection. And while not always as consistently good as the two National Galleries, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, often has similar videos worth watching, once you can get past some of the more NPR-type material.


Among many of my childhood career aspirations – superhero, policeman, etc. – perhaps one of the most unusual was my desire to be an Egyptologist. This was well before the premiere of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and at the age of 5 I was teaching myself how to read hieroglyphics and learning the names of the major kings of the Ancient Egyptian dynasties, recognizing building, painting, and object designs of different periods, and getting a grasp on the rather complicated relationships within the pantheon of Egyptian gods.

Although I never ended up working on a dig in the Valley of the Kings, that interest stayed with me, and expanded to include a number of ancient cultures, including Greece, Rome, Britain, and so on. Rather than the “popular archaeology” that you can find on television, it’s worthwhile to challenge yourself a bit here, and watch some serious archaeology lecture presentations. Now granted, some of the material is going to be highly technical, but you can just let that wash over you and stick with the general story; you’ll emerge from the experience better-informed not only about the past, but also how some aspects of the past, such as artistic and architectural styles, can still be seen today, long after the cultures that inspired them have vanished.

There are a number of museums, institutions, and organizations that record and upload scholarly talks on archaeology. A few of my favorites are the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Semitic Museum at Harvard. For my purposes, the more interesting lectures are recaps of recent discoveries at the end of a dig season, since that material rarely gets attention in the press, as well as explorations of cultures which I’ve never heard of before, or only know very little about.


Of course, any lecture about art or archaeology that you might find on YouTube is going to have at least some element of history to it, but for presentations on a wider variety of historical subjects, there are many resources available as well. Gresham College in London often has a number of very interesting videos, and in particular I encourage you to seek out the lectures of Simon Thurley. Not only is he extremely well-versed in everything from court etiquette to medieval business transactions, he is one of the rare history lecturers whose presentation style is enthusiastic, and marked by a keen, dry sense of wit. And for a more populist take on a wide variety of historical subjects, the massive archive of the Timeline YouTube channel contains a huge amount of material to sift through, and indeed on so many different areas (and of differing quality of productions) that I recommend the channel mostly as a last resort if you can’t find anything else a bit more polished to watch.

6 Comments on “Shelter Smarts: Expand Your Mind, Not Your Waistline

  1. What a great list. I’m so pleased you included Gresham College (and in particular, Simon Thurley). I discovered these free lectures over my Christmas holidays this year, and watched rather too many of them. It’s fantastic that they’re all available for free on YouTube. Cheers for some other recommendations, William. Cheers.


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