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.

Digital Publishing and Contents Magazine

If you haven’t already stumbled across Contents Magazine go check it out. Contents is a digital ‘magazine’ platform that releases issues in segments, a typical issue takes about eight weeks to appear on the site.  The magazine focuses on “readers who create, edit, publish, analyze, and care for the contents of the internet.”  A lot of the material is applicable to archivists, librarians, and those working in the digital humanities.

I’ve never been a huge physical magazine reader.  I subscribe to Canada’s History and that’s the only magazine I read with any real consistency.  But, I do spend a lot of time online reading digital material, much of which is the length of an average magazine article.  It is interesting to see the branding of Contents as a digital magazine not as a group blog.  Contents includes design and illustration staff that are more reminiscent of magazine production than blog creation and it does have a visual element that many blog lack, so perhaps it is aptly named.

Personally, I like the emphasis that Contents places on open access and accessibility.  Most of the articles are the length of a longer blog post, include photos and are written in accessible language.  Considering Contents focus on digital mediums and the content that we produce online, it will be interesting to see if the site transforms to reflect trends in digital publishing and reading. 

The current issue’s Editor’s Note focuses on the idea of archives as an ancient idea that has very real applications and hurdles in a technologically inclined world.  Considering the challenges of digital preservation that archivists face today the topic of issue No. 5 is very relevant.  It should be interesting to see what the rest of the content in this issue ends up being.

What are your favourite digital publishing initiatives?