Interactive Kiosks at the Luce Foundation

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Stacey Martin

Published on March 02, 2011

  • Description:

    Although I have visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum on several occasions, I somehow never stumbled upon the Luce Foundation until recently. After hearing its name in several conversations among museum colleagues, I had to seek out this seemingly mythical place. I was eager to experience the ways this museum within a museum has embraced technology to engage audiences with its collection. At my visit, I discovered several instances of this, including an audio tour, display drawers that “magically” open and close with the push of a button, and touch-screen computer kiosks. Although I could gush for pages about the drawers, this review will focus on the kiosks. I found this subtle use of technology to enhance my experience, without taking away from the real star of the museum, the art.

    There are 10 kiosks in the Luce, most tucked between rows of cases, against the wall. Only 2 are in a more visible open area. If you’re not looking for them, the kiosks could be easy to miss. The computer looks like a desktop anyone could have in their home, complete with a keyboard, which makes it less intimidating for people uncomfortable with new technology. I was happy to see the physical keyboard, as I often get frustrated typing on touch-screen keypads. The only difference from a regular computer is that instead of a mouse, the user taps the screen.

    On each kiosk, visitors can browse the art on display, choosing from the categories of paintings, sculpture, craft, and folk art. Or, to further their knowledge of an object they saw in a case, a visitor can enter the work’s accession number into the search field. Conveniently, there are pencils and scrap paper next to each monitor for this purpose. I appreciated the signs scattered throughout the aisles explaining what accession numbers are, since many visitors are probably unfamiliar with the term. Other search options include title, artist, and keyword for more flexibility in exploring the Luce’s offerings.

    It seems as though every work in the Luce is featured in the kiosks, which is quiet a feat. Every object has a couple short paragraphs of context next to its picture. If the visitor wishes to further expand their understanding of the object, they can follow a link to read a short biography of the artist, or in some cases, watch a brief video about the work. The videos are an appropriate length, most under a minute, and they include optional captioning for the hearing-impaired. However, I found the videos to be shockingly loud and I could not find a volume control. I became worried that the video was disturbing other visitors’ experiences. Another important aspect of the kiosks is the “find” option, which opens a museum floor plan indicating where the artwork is located in the collection in comparison with location of the kiosk. This feature is essential for ensuring the kiosks enhance and supplement the experience of looking at the art, rather than replacing seeing the “real thing”.

    Visitors are also presented with the option to “collect” artwork into a virtual scrapbook, which can be accessed at home if you allow the Luce to email you a password. I like the option of extending the connection between the visitor and the Luce’s collection, but I was disappointed that I could not access my “scrapbook” at other kiosks in the museum. My experience would have been enhanced if I could add works to my collection as I discovered them, rather than having to create a new collection at each kiosk.

    In an attempt to include visitor participation, the kiosks also have a “comment” feature. Its bulletin board design is a clever alternative to the traditional comment book, but I could not ascertain any real value of the option, especially since most visitors’ comments were not even about the Luce or its art. I think a better way to collaborate with the public would be to allow visitors to “tag” artworks and then have those tags influence keyword searches. Or, the feature could provide scaffolding by asking the visitor to provide responses to specific prompts.

    A simple feature that I liked best about the kiosks is the option to view a select number of objects in “3D”. With a sculpture called “Obsession”, I was able to zoom in and view it from all angles. This experience certainly increased my engagement with the art, since the cases in which the actual objects are stored allow only one vantage point for viewing. However, I didn’t discover this option the first time I used a kiosk. I only learned of the 3D option when I saw a sign advertising them at a different kiosk station later in my visit. This was the only sign of its kind I noticed, and I don’t understand why it is not at every kiosk.

    Although I saw several other visitors when I was at the Luce, I noticed only one person interact with the kiosks. I did notice somebody looking over my shoulder when viewing “Obsession” in 3D, but she walked away before I could get a chance to talk to her. The kiosks are probably best suited for individual exploration, especially since most stations only have one stool. I am curious to observe what kind of social interaction the kiosks would foster.

    Overall, I found the kiosks to be audience-focused and very well implemented. Unlike most museums, which label their objects on view, the Luce’s collection is comprised of objects not on view at a traditional museum. Their unique position as a museum of visible storage begs for a way curious visitors can learn more about what they see, and the kiosks do just that.

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