The Luce Foundation Center for American Art


of an Exhibition

by Sarah Wohlstadter

Published on February 16, 2010, Modified on February 19, 2010

  • Description:

    Discovering the Luce Foundation Center for Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was an art novice’s dream! As someone with a science background, I found the form in which the art was displayed, as open storage, was very approachable. I was quite happy to discover all sorts of technological options for learning about the objects in the center. During my visit I interacted with the computer kiosks, played a text message tour game, and used the free audio guides. When I first arrived, I noticed that there were only small labels for just the paintings on display. No other objects had labels for who the artist was, when it was made, or the materials used. This made the technology elements very important to me. I am an art museum visitor that requires some hand holding.

    Upon entering the Luce Foundation Center, I explored the bottom level of the three-floor atrium and then made my way up to the information desk to see what sorts of things they offered. As the desk attendant was not there for the moment, I perused the materials on the desk and found myself drawn to the computer kiosks at the south end of the room. The computers have a keyboard but are touchscreen as well. It was very user-friendly and allowed me to become familiar with what kinds of objects were on display. I really liked the various avenues through which one could explore anything in the collection. Each listing provides a few paragraphs of information about the object and/or the artist. Some include media selections such as more images or videos talking about the subject of the art or the artist(s). Since I have been noticing elements of accessibility more in exhibits, I appreciated the option to turn on closed captioning. I just wish there was an option to make the main text larger as it might be difficult for someone of low vision to read.

    In just leafing through objects on the screen, I made a mental note to be sure to check out the miniatures (something I enjoyed very much when I found them). They are displayed in hydraulic release drawers that open with the push of a button. I felt that in pushing the button I was unlocking a special display of curiosities. The gentle hiss of the drawer sliding open added an element of excitement. I think that could be considered a type of technology. I overheard a gallery attendant explain that each drawer can be separately climate controlled which allowed for a greater range of objects to be displayed.

    Another feature of the kiosks I enjoyed was the Scrapbook. This feature allows you to “clip” images of objects and collect them in your scrapbook. Then, you can have the scrapbook e-mailed to you at home which encourages further exploration. The computer kiosks were a wonderful way to be introduced to the objects and presentation style of the Luce Foundation Center.

    The next portion of my visit consisted of the text message game The Case of the Missing Artwork! A Choose Your Own Adventure Game. Once I finished exploring the kiosk and the desk attendant returned, I asked her about the many text message tours offered in the gallery. Since this particular one was a game/tour I figured I would give it a try as I’ve never completed a text message tour before. The half-page sized handout about the game gives you directions and a starting location. Not wanting to disturb other visitors I put my cell phone on vibrate which worked quite well as I kept the phone in my hand throughout the whole game. It might be nice to encourage that step for text message tours as the sounds of several phones going off might be a problem for other visitors. The game asks you to find an object and text a 5 digit number the word “LUCE” followed by the object’s accession number without periods. This triggers a text message back to you either giving you directions to find the next piece or to chose between two options to text back for the next clue. I was very happy to find that the response is almost instant which helped me figure out when I had made a mistake (it did not text back). While I found the hunt aspect of the game very fun, I found that the texts did not ask me to engage with the objects to which they directed me. Perhaps adding more of a backstory to the directions sheet would create more of a purpose for going through all of the steps. I appreciated that the game took me all around the Luce Center and into all of the different thematic areas of objects. I just hoped to be drawn in to the pieces more than just locating the label. I did have some trouble locating one of the objects so I used the kiosks to find the location based on the clue texted to me (a suggestion on the directions sheet). I found that using the kiosks gave me the background information I was looking for in the texts. I’m not sure I would like to go to the computer after finding each object or that other visitors might not just search each clue on the computer and never see the actual pieces. Maybe incorporating the kiosks for some of the objects would help. While I enjoyed the searching aspect of this game and seeing which object was picked next, I found that when I completed the game by finding the last piece I was not sure what actually did. The final text told me to go back to the information desk and “tell them what I know” and when I got there I was not sure what to say. Luckily the desk attendant guided my response and I was able to collect my prize of an adorable button which I proudly pinned to my shirt.

    I decided to explore just a little bit further by borrowing one of the free audio guides. The same information is available by using one’s own cell phone, but since I just used it extensively for the text tour I decided to give it a break. The information desk attendant gave me the directions for using the guide as well as pointed out that there were different types of audio selections. Some were the standard elaboration on the object and others were staff members’ opinions or thoughts on pieces throughout the collection. I listened to quite a few audio selections and enjoyed the different discussions immensely. Also, I very much appreciated the frequently asked questions posted in cases with answers provided in the audio guides. For example, in some of the sculpture cases there were pieces that had metal barbs sticking out. I was curious about them and was excited to learn that they were reference points for the artist as described to me via the audio guide. It was a wonderful extra to have within the traditional audio guide.

    In summary, I had a wonderful experience at the Luce Foundation Center for American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The use of technology allowed me to better understand and appreciate the artwork displayed in the open storage facility.

Latest Comments (1)


by Georgina Goodlander - February 17, 2010

I’m so glad that you enjoyed the Luce Foundation Center and that you had the opportunity to try out the kiosks, a text-game, and the audio tour – you must have been there for quite some time. :)

I’ve noted the areas where you saw room for improvement, and particularly that you didn’t really feel like you had “finished” the Choose Your Own Adventure game.


Georgina Goodlander
Interpretive Programs Manager, Luce Foundation Center
Smithsonian American Art Museum

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