Monday, March 11, 2013

One-Stop-Shop: "Tours" at The Art Institute Chicago

A few weeks ago, the Art Institute of Chicago debuted a new app—“Art Institute Tours.”  It offers visitors who download on their smartphones (Apple or Android) a concise key to the museum, including small museum-curated tours, organized by Period, Movement, country, and so forth.  The app also offers a step-by-step directional feature precisely guiding the go-ers to any specific work, sort of a condensed version of their “Pathfinder” and “Floor Plan” features available on their website.

One of the best features of “Tours” is the Tours by Theme option, organizing tours by associating pieces together by very unique, specific commonalities.  This particular method of cataloging offers a unique option to students especially looking for a specific theme to study in the collection-beyond just medium, style, period, etc--although there are good tours organized according to those traditional standards as well.  For example: “Look a Little Closer,” and “My Kind of Town” were especially intriguing.  The “Closer” tour leads you to pieces in the museum with interesting, often overlooked details.  My favorite tour was “My Kind of Town.” As a Chicagophile, I love that song, love this city, and loved learning little factoids about Chicago through the few pieces of art included in this tour.  As someone who has visited the Art Institute many, many times, I think this particular Themed tours feature is of great use and interest to a regular/frequent visitor looking for something new amid the familiar setting.  The collection is certainly large enough to spend hours and days studying and observing.  This app provides a way to organize those visits with the ability to easily discover new pieces or spaces within the museum.

One thing that was very clear on this technology-led tour of the AIC was the modernization of the museum itself—via technology, of course.  “Art Institute Tours” is not the only motion the AIC has taken toward technological friendliness and development.  Other vestiges beyond “Tours” include: interactive computer screens, as well as tower/monitor computer stations, scattered around the museum within exhibits, and in public spaces to help people with step-by-step directions throughout the museum, with more info about an exhibit or piece of work; free wi-fi available to all visitors; as well as a recently re-vamped website with a sleek design that promotes the use of icons and simplicity.  But while these recent infiltrations of technology are present all through the museum, it is not an ostentatious show.  None of it is shocking. 

In fact, it seems like a natural extension.  It's possible you might not notice it if you didn't know to look for it. Advertising about it wasn't very ostentatious at the entrances.  This was also the release date of the Picasso and Chicago exhibit, however, so I suppose it was a bit overshadowed. Maybe you didn’t expect it—or maybe you did—but once you see these computers hanging up on the wall, once you notice that prompt for app download on your smartphone, it just…makes sense.  Why shouldn’t they offer wi-fi to the visitors?  Everyone else does.  Soon even the public parks might offer wi-fi! 

But—beyond being an idea born of necessity/inevitability—is this co-existence of technology and art also a nod to aesthetic appeal of technology? Aesthetically the sleek technology placed against the neoclassical architecture (in the main building, anyway) by the works of art just worked. That big beautiful screen looked so nice on the wall.   This is Apple-specific for this location, of course—because every medium that was provided by the Museum was Apple-made.  But it was hard not to notice that the outfits of technology complimented the exhibits they were situated in.  For instance, there are two computers and monitors stationed right across from Marc Chagall’s America Windows, placed there to provide the opportunity to learn more about the work.  This station was being used for this purpose by multiple people the whole time I was near these windows.  It was tucked away in a nook, but it still managed to compliment the windows in a way.  The dim glowing from the blue Mac screens against the white walls did not look unlike the “Windows.”  And in Picasso and Chicago, the rectangular interactive touch-screen computers were hung up right beside Picasso’s works of art in frames of that very shape.  Is this a stylistic choice?

In any case, the AIC is now encouraging a one-stop shop environment—shopping, dining, social media, easy digital access at your fingertips—all occurring within their location.  Many of these things they already offered before, but are now more rounded out with the new technological involvement.  It is officially a hub!  But this does not take away from the museum itself.  They have created a good app and a good opportunity for visitors to further delve into the building, into the collection, into the very works of art themselves. Art is meant to stimulate the five senses so that the visitor can smell, touch, hear, feel, and (on occasion) taste—EXPERIENCE the work.  And enabling all this sleek technology only further enhances that opportunity the works of art lends.  It is not groundbreaking technology—this is occurring all over.  Museums are inevitably moving into this direction of incorporating more and more technology into their facilities. While a natural step forward, it is a graceful one.