Luce Foundation Center for American Art


of an Exhibition

by Sharleen Eusebio

Published on February 15, 2010, Modified on February 16, 2010

  • Description:

    This weekend, I spent some time at the Luce Foundation Center for American Art to take a gander at what they have to offer. I hadn’t been to the Luce Center before and I do not have a strong background in American Art. In this way, I feel myself to be the average visitor to the Luce Center and SAAM: very little prior knowledge, but an abundance of enthusiasm and excitement for learning more.

    Although I had used cell-phone audio tours before, the Luce Center introduced me to a new form of touring: a text tour in the form of a scavenger hunt. How exciting!
    The Luce offers three different texting activities:
    1. Find the Missing Artwork
    2. Mad Genius
    3. Six Degrees of Separation

    I asked the staff which ones would be best to start with as a first-time visitor without knowledge of American Art. I was told that either Mad Genius or 6Degrees would be great. The Mad Genius tour highlights eccentric artists and their works found at the Luce Center. 6Degrees shows you how different artists are connected all throughout the museum.

    So, I was excited to begin and I decided to do both. The technology is simple enough for texting fiends such as myself. You text “MadGenius” to a provided number and you’ll immediately receive an introductory welcome text and your first clue to get you started in finding the first piece of art you’re to view. There were ten artworks included (and six for the 6Degrees tour), and each time you find one, you receive a follow-up text that is meant to challenge you to look closely at the art. The only snafu I came across with the texting was that I received the congratulatory “You’re done!” text before I even finished the last clue of the 6Degrees tour. Other than that, I had no problems. It’s free to participate, just your provider’s standard texting rates apply. I liked that each time you text, you get your next clue within moments. The immediate response and the upbeat, conversational tone of the messages made the technology a pleasure to work with.

    Although the technology in itself was easy, the game was less so. Upon receiving the first text, I felt it would have been very helpful to have some prior knowledge of art or of the site. Even after I texted “Hint,” which is a great option that gives you a clue when you’re stuck, the hint was about the specific work of art, and not its location. As it was, I had to ask the information desk to nudge me in the right direction. In hindsight, the first challenge did specify that it was about a folk artist, so it does make sense that I’m to head to the Folk Arts section. But as a first time visitor, I didn’t even know that there was such a section. So, I can imagine this might pose as a challenge to other visitors who might use the text tour as a means of orientation. It would be helpful to suggest that they pick up a map before beginning the tour.

    As the tour went on, I found myself getting a bit frustrated. I felt that some clues were vague and that it was sometimes tricky find the correct word to answer the follow-up questions. In the interest of not spoiling the game for potential participants, I won’t go into too much detail, but what I mean is the difference between “golden” or “blonde,” “evening” or “night,” and so on. There was also one follow-up question in the 6Degrees tour that required knowledge not of the art, but of geography. Other follow-up questions might have had the potential to invite participants to better appreciate the piece, but instead asked questions that were almost too basic: What gender? What time? What color?

    This is not to say that the questions were not helpful. Some follow-up questions were provocative and invited a closer look at the surrounding pieces of art (i.e. guess which other pieces are by the same artist.) It was good when the hints encouraged the use of the computer kiosks and allowed for the incorporation of the different technology options available. I was also appreciative of when the questions asked you to read the labels. What I liked best, however, was the inclusion of an open-ended question: Why do you think…? It would be interesting to see what responses they received for this question. Perhaps encourage participants to Tweet the answer via text? That way, there’s a chance to go home and see what other people said about the piece.

    Although the activity was comfortable in that it was delivered in a media that I’m very familiar with, it did little to increase my confidence. As someone without a familiarity with American Art, not sailing through this with ease certainly increased my frustration. This leads me to question toward whom this activity is geared. What level of knowledge is expected – both of American Art and of the Luce Center or SAAM? On one hand, knowledge of artists and the museum will help you find the next piece from the clues. On the other hand, the follow-up questions are either of a trivial nature (where is this place?) or too basic (are they male or female?) for a seasoned visitor. Unfortunately, since many of the follow-up questions were this way, it didn’t invite me to fully appreciate the work. It was more a matter of finding it and moving on to the next.

    In all, the texting tour has all the potential to be great fun. It is easy to use, the tone is fresh and friendly, and the follow-up questions could allow for closer examination of the pieces. Unfortunately, it does appear that as novel as the idea is for now, it has yet to catch on to the other visitors. Although I saw several families and groups of friends trying out the paper scavenger hunt, I didn’t see anyone else roaming the stacks with cell phone in hand. Had I been with friends this would have definitely invited a social aspect to the activity and encouraged conversation about the pieces.

    I also thought that the works chosen for the tour were beautiful and varied and I’ll definitely be coming back to see them. My only regret is that I left feeling that there’s so much more about them that I still don’t know. Of course, there’s only so much that can be communicated via text. Maybe next time I’ll take the audio tour?

Latest Comments (1)


by Georgina Goodlander - February 16, 2010

Yikes! You guys are tough :)
I think this is a great review of our new text-message tours. There are a couple of elements that you mention that I think we can explore:
1) We can look at the way we use “hints” and perhaps use these more to guide people to a location, rather than an artwork.
2) We can definitely add more options to the answers to include “golden” as well as “blonde,” and “evening” in addition to “night.”

We certainly don’t expect our visitors to have any pre-existing knowledge of the Luce Foundation Center, and hope that the text-tours will lead people to discover some of the things that we have on offer. That said, we can probably be more explicit about the availability of staff at the information desk. You certainly did not do anything wrong by asking for guidance!

The text tours are designed as a starting point to introduce participants to the range of artworks that we have on display. As we are limited to 160 characters per message, we did not design them to provide detailed insights or critiques on the artworks – we have other venues for that. However, it might be worth us letting participants know about the wealth of information that is available by other means, such as the computer kiosks, if they are looking to dig deeper. I would welcome any suggestions that you might have for how we could do this. We also don’t really do any promotion for these tours yet, as they are still in testing mode. Any suggestions you have for how best to promote them to encourage more participation would also be appreciated.

Thank you! We do appreciate these honest and detailed reviews.

Georgina Goodlander
Interpretive Programs Manager, Luce Foundation Center
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Office: (202) 633-8532

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