Technology and Highlights of the Art Institute of Chicago

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the fourth post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

When people say you could spend hours at the Art Institute of Chicago they aren’t kidding.  I spent a full day there as part of my trip to Chicago.   Overall I enjoyed the day exploring the galleries. There is a huge range of artwork and themes in the Institute and everyone should be able to find something that interests them.

There are ipad and other technology stations throughout the Art Institute.  However I saw very few of them being used during our visit.  It made me wonder about what type of media and digital interaction is most effective in museums and galleries.  In addition to the technology stations the Art Institute has a free app and open wifi.

Despite loving the possibilities of technology integrated into heritage sites I’ve rarely downloaded apps for the sites I’ve visited.  But while waiting in line for tickets to gain entry to the Art Institute I downloaded their app.  As much as I wanted to love the app I found it a bit awkward to use.  The app offers 50 tours categorized by collections, themes, or time limits.  The apps location feature that showed where you were inside the gallery was well done.  However including more than just the gallery numbers on the maps might have made it more useful.  The app does support some basic searching of the collections.  However this feature is fairly basic and not fully developed.  The app has potential but I still found myself relying more on the paper map and traditional text panels.

The floor plan and layout of the galleries in the Art Institute can be confusing at times.  This is mainly due to the how the Institute developed.  The first permanent building of the Art Institute opened in 1893 and since then eight expansions for gallery and administration space have been undertaken.  The nature of adding additions onto older buildings has resulted in parts of the Institute being disconnected and only accessible by one or two routes.  For example, not all of the galleries on the second floor are accessible from the same stairwell or elevator.  Even with good planning this can add some additional walking to a visit as you often have to loop back to access a gallery that is only accessible from one spot.

Some of my favourite exhibitions from my visit included: Ethel Stein, Master WeaverMargritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, and the public art section that includes Chagall’s America Windows. An interesting video about the conversation and installation of the Chagall windows can be seen here.

I also found the Indian Art of the Americas gallery interesting. I had assumed that this gallery would focus mainly on First Nation artwork from the United States.  The collection is much more broad in its scope and includes works from both South and North American with a large percentage of the collection being made up of Mesoamerican and Andean ceramics, sculptures, and textiles.

The gallery had more of a museum feel to it focusing on the history of the numerous Indigenous peoples and their traditional practices.  The gallery contained very little from the 1900s and didn’t address current trends in Indigenous artwork.  That being said, the Institute is well known for its Amerindian art and the items on display were well contextualized and highlights a number of cultures.  Though I did wonder how involved (if at all) Indigenous communities have been in collection, display choices,  and interpretation. 

The Art Institute is definitely worth a visit if you’re in Chicago.  If you have a limited amount of time I would recommend doing some research beforehand to map out what you want to see and planning your visit around must sees.  Looking at everything in the Institute in great detail during a single visit simply isn’t possible.

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