Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum shares a building with the National Portrait
Gallery in downtown DC. Our collection actually dates back to the mid-nineteenth
century, but we have been in this building since 1968. Currently, we get around 1 million
visitors to this building every year
Luce Foundation Center
In 2001, the Henry Luce Foundation gave the museum $10 million to establish the Luce
Center, the first visible art storage and study center in Washington DC. $7 million of that
was a grant for development of the Center and $3 million was to set up an endowment for
ongoing support of staff and programs.
The Center opened on July 1, 2006, along with the newly renovated museum building. It
displays more than 3,300 works from the permanent collection in 64 glass cases and 56
The Luce Foundation was established in 1936 by the late Henry R. Luce, co-founder and
editor-in-chief of Time, Inc. Most of the foundation’s wealth was accumulated at the time
of his death in 1967, from stock which he donated in his will.
The Luce Foundation’s work reflects the interests of four generations of the Luce family.
Among these interests are-
• Increased understanding between Asia and the United States
• The study of religion and theology
• Opportunities for women in science and engineering, and
• Scholarship in American Art
The American Art Program of the Luce Foundation focuses on American fine and
decorative art, and is committed to scholarship and the overall enhancement of American
art history. The program supports exhibitions, publications and research that emphasize
an aesthetic approach to American art.
The Luce Foundation is committed to making collections like ours accessible to the
general public, because they feel that American art is underappreciated by virtue of the
fact that only a small fraction of those great collections could be on display at any one
Ours was the 4th visible storage center supported by the Luce Foundation.
Met’s Luce Center
• In 1985, the Metropolitan Museum of Art received the first Luce Foundation
grant to create a visible storage center.
• In 1988, they opened a 16,000 square foot facility named the Henry R. Luce
Center for the Study of American Art. Their Luce Center is in their American
Wing and displays around 10,000 objects from their fine art and decorative art
• In 2000, the New York Historical Society opened the Henry Luce III Center for
the Study of American Culture.
• Their display is slightly different, with glass cases revealing views into actual
storage areas. As a result, their Luce Center holds nearly 40,000 objects from the
museum’s permanent collection.
• Early in 2001, the Luce Foundation awarded two $10 million grants for creation
of visible storage centers at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the
Brooklyn Museum of Art.
• Brooklyn used a two-part approach to creating their Luce Center. The first part
was a reinstallation of their permanent collection galleries for American Art.
• The second part was a visible storage/study center, which opened in 2005,
displaying around 2,000 works from the collection.
Here, you can see two historic images of the space that is now home to our Luce
Foundation Center. The building was constructed in the mid-nineteenth century and was
originally home to the Patent Office. It used to be a requirement to submit a model with
every patent application, and they used to use the third floor of the building to display all
of these models.
At the turn of the twentieth-century, they removed this requirement and actually
auctioned off all of the models in the collection. They turned over the space on the third
floor to public records. The Patent Office moved out in the 1930s. In the 1950s, they
wanted to demolish the building to turn it into a parking lot, but President Eisenhower
intervened and turned it over to the Smithsonian in 1958. Ten years later, it opened as the
American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.
In 2000, the building closed again for six and a half years for a major renovation and
enhancement project. Prior to the renovation, the space on the 3rd floor had been used as
a library, only open to visitors by appointment. We wanted to make it open to the public
at all times, so we decided to use this space for the new visible storage facility.
On three levels, we display around 3,300 artworks from the museum’s collection. We
have large sculptures on the main level, then objects in floor-to-ceiling glass cases on the
two mezzanine levels. It is not curated in a typical sense, but we have tried to make it
make sense for the viewer by grouping like objects together.
The objects cases are wider, with adjustable glass shelves that allows for a wide variety
of displays. Ranging from full length statues by Hiram Powers to numerous tiny Roman
The paintings cases are narrower, and have slotted backs, allowing us to hang paintings in
a variety of configurations. The glass has reduced glare, and we elected to put the lighting
on the outside to reduce any possibility of heat build up.
There are three collections in drawers in the Luce Center: portrait miniatures, medals and
medallions, and craft jewelry. The drawers were designed specifically for the miniatures,
which are commonly painted in watercolor on ivory. The “soft slide” pneumatic drawers
allow the miniatures to be permanently on view - each drawer is climate controlled, can
open and close with minimal vibration, and the lights switch off when the drawer is
closed. The final design was the result of close collaboration between the manufacturer
and the museum’s objects conservators in order to ensure that the micro-climate in each
drawer was suitable for long term storage.
We had an objects case delivered early so that we could conduct dress rehearsals for the
installation of every case. Our art handler and designer unpacked, installed,
photographed, and documented the contents of every case over three years.
They then re-packed the artworks into boxes labeled with the case numbers, so that when
it came time for installation it could be done very quickly.
The installation took place in early 2006 and took only 6 ½ weeks to complete!
We realized that 3,300 objects in a relatively small space might be overwhelming to the
visitor, so we wanted to make the space easy to navigate. We divided the collection into
six broad categories: 19th and 20th century sculpture, 19th and 20th century painting, folk
art, and contemporary craft. As you can see from the image, the bold graphics at the end
of each case clearly delineate between the different sections. We also selected an icon to
represent each area.
We also designed an introductory brochure for the Center. The most important features in
this are the floor plan and the explanation of the accession numbers.
Accession numbers - labels
As the Luce Center is storage and not an exhibition, there is very little physical
interpretation. The paintings have abbreviated tombstones that include artist, title, and
accession number, while the objects are just identified by their accession number. This
approach allows us to fit the largest possible number of objects into the cases, but also
makes it relatively easy to change the works that are on view.
We did want to provide some interpretation for visitors who may not have a lot of time,
or who aren’t interested in using the kiosks. We did this in the form of 6 special
installations. These pull out a particular theme from the works around them. For example,
in 20th century sculpture we have an installation that discusses different types of bronze
patina, and in 19th century sculpture we have an installation that talks about frames and
how a frame can influence a painting. Some of the installations are interactive: in
between two cases of paintings by George Catlin we have an installation that plays audio
clips from the artist’s diary.
Another example of more traditional interpretation is the in-case annotations, which are
used to convey general information about groups of objects in individual cases. This type
of interpretive element works well for visitors who don’t have the time or inclination to
sit down at a kiosk to explore in-depth information.
Sandwiched within 19th century painting is an information desk, with two fully networked
computer stations. We knew from very early on that we wanted a staff presence in the
Luce Center, and the information desk allows two staff members to operate from within
the Center, answering visitor questions and running public programs. This access to staff
all the hours the museum is open has proved invaluable to both visitors and staff.
The Luce Center is also a study center, so we wanted to provide information about the
works on view for those visitors who are interested. This information is available on ten
computer kiosks dotted around the center.
We researched and wrote interpretive text labels for every single object and biographies
for every single artist in the Center. That works out to more than 5,000 paragraphs of
text! It took around four years to complete all of the research and writing.
In addition, there are hundreds of video and audio clips. You can zoom, locate, and
collect every object, too.
Some of the three dimensional objects in the Luce Center have detail on all sides, which
is not possible to see in the cases. We selected 20 objects and did a project to show them
‘in the round.’ We worked with the Canadian company Synthescape to place the object
on a turntable, then take high resolution photographs at 5 degree increments. Synthescape
then stitched these images together in Flash.
Fill the Gap
In February, we began a citizen curator project on Flickr. The Luce Center is a dynamic
place, with objects often departing to go on view elsewhere, to be loaned to other
museums, or to undergo conservation work. If an object leaves for more than 12 months,
it is up to us to replace it.
Last year was a very busy year with over 36 paintings departing the Center. We decided
to set up a project on Flickr to see if we could solicit help from the general public. We
posted an image of the “gap” with details of the other works in the case and dimensions.
We tasked the public to search our online collections and make recommendations for a
replacement. This is not an easy task – we have over 41,000 works in our collection – but
we gave the public exactly the same tools that we use.
Fill the Gap 2
We have not had huge participation, but the people that have contributed have submitted
quality suggestions. We’ve been posting roughly one gap per month, and have
successfully filled six since the project began.
One thing this project has done is reveal behind-the-scenes processes. We document the
whole process on Flickr- checking with the registrar to see whether the artwork fits,
getting approval on the selection from the curators, and submitting the move requests to
get the works installed.
Analog Fill the Gap
Over the summer, we tried a different approach. This time, we picked a pool of 20
possible objects and asked visitors to the Luce Center to vote on their choice. We also
asked them to tell us why they picked a particular object. This had better participation,
but took quite a lot of work to get it set up. It is no longer a “real” project.
Just last month, we launched an audio tour in the Luce Center. This seemed like an
obvious interpretive solution to me. Currently, we have lots of juicy content on the
computer kiosks, but no way to access the information while standing in front of the
object. We are doing a pilot for six months using two different platforms – visitors can
access over 150 stops using their own cell phone, or by borrowing a simple MP3 device
from the museum.
We created 110 traditional audio stops – curatorial voice and content – but then decided
we wanted to add something a little more fun, so we created 50 rogue stops.
These are just the Luce Center staff members talking informally about some of their
favorite objects. We also try to answer some of the more popular questions, including
“What is this place?” “Where are all the labels?” and “Why do you have objects in
GHOSTS OF A CHANCE
In 2008, we implemented the world’s first museum based Alternate Reality Game titled
Ghosts of a Chance. We did this for three main reasons – to create an interactive
experience in an art museum, a place where interactivity is usually discouraged, to attract
a new audience of gamers who would not typically consider visiting an art museum, and
to promote the museum.
(We asked 60 people who played the game how they would describe the experience to a
friend, and the word cloud you see here shows the results. The larger the word, the more
times people used that word.)
First, we had to figure out exactly what an ARG was. There are many definitions out
there, and they are constantly evolving.
For us, an ARG is an interactive story that demands players active participation – the
story does not continue unless players do something. It takes place in real time and using
real-world elements (phones, web, e-mail, physical spaces, in-person interaction), and is
inspired by and integrated with our collection.
To get players talking about the upcoming game, the game designers decided to gatecrash
the annual conference for hardcore ARG players – ARGFest-o-con. They hired a
bodybuilder and tattooed his chest with the first clue: “Luce’s Lover’s Eye.” […]
We received over 150 images of eyes and 250 phonecalls.
Early press also helped with the game, as we were able to conceal clues in an ABC.com
article and the Smithsonian Magazine.
The story of the game focused around two young curators, Daisy and Daniel, who were
being haunted by restless spirits. They shared elements of the story on the game web site,
as well as through videos and comments posted on YouTube, mySpace, and Facebook.
The museum supported the story with blog posts, a press release, and staff interaction
with Daisy and Daniel.
As they learned more about the spirits, they revealed that they needed to hold an
exhibition. So they invited players to create a series of artifacts.
• We received 33 artifacts from 14 players
• High quality
• Both hardcore players and crafters participated in this aspect of the game.
The artifacts were temporarily catalogued into the collection. Participants wrote their own
labels, which were also included on-line.
To further support the story…
NMNH - Tour of the anthropology department with Dr. David Hunt. Forensic evaluation
of human remains – fake police reports. Skeletons belonged to two of the spirits
Cemetery – tour of the Congressional Cemetery with Patrick Crowley, Chair of the
Board of Directors. Players saw ghostly figures in the distance flashing lights, found a
flashlight and Morse-code key in a tomb, started communicating with the figures – they
On October 25, we held the final event in the museum. This included an exhibition of all
the player-created artifacts and a five-hour multimedia scavenger hunt around the
Created a shorter version of the final event for the museum to run on a recurring basis.
Over 1,300 people have played since we started it a year ago.
• Text messaging the answer to questions in order to get the next clue
• Creating sculptures out of foil
• Using sculpture to decipher complex code
• Following treasure maps
• finding and watching video clips on the computer kiosks
• Telling stories about the art
Over six thousand players participated in Ghosts of a Chance on-line, and around 250
people joined us for the final event.
“It turned an already interesting museum into a place of wonder”
“I never would have spent the time staring into a painting and trying to understand it if it
weren’t part of a task.”
“This is the first time that it felt like the museum was meant to be fun and interactive
rather than somber and pensive.”
“A fantastic way to examine the collections and pay specific attention to the various
works on art on display.”
I’m going to leave you with some of the stories that we received about this artwork. My
contact info is at the bottom.