The Met’s Luce Center for the Study of American Art

On Monday the MuseumLab visited the Henry R. Luce Study Center for American Art at the Met. Curator Amelia Peck and Technologist Leela Outcalt gave us a tour of the existing facility, talked about its history and showed us a prototype of the new user interfaces that they are implementing.

The Luce Center was the first of many Luce Foundation funded study centers including the New York Historical Society, the Brooklyn Museum, and most recently the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in DC. The Met’s Luce Center was created in the late 1980’s when American became an official department  after consolidating collections that were previously scattered across multiple departments. The Luce  Center was revolutionary for its high-density open storage approach and use of digital object records that could be accessed by visitors. There are now over 18,000 objects of decorative arts, art and design in the American Department and these are distributed in a variety of gallery types including art galleries, period rooms, the study center, a recently renovated courtyard and some back of house storage. Adding loaned objects they are currently holding over 21,000 objects. The basic idea behind the study center was to democratize access to the collection, not just for scholars, but for the visiting public. There is a great article in Museum News (July 1991) by Carrie Rebora chronicles the early years of the project and how it came about so I wont dwell on the history here (I will digress with one footnote–the entire collections database and user interface ran on two 330 MB drives with 4 MB of RAM!).

Amelia and Leela gave us their assessment of what works and what doesn’t and a peek at some new interfaces the are developing with Small Design Firm. Their plans include a much larger number of interactive study stations each with a large touch screen monitor at a table to support longer object browsing and study. The prototype of the new interface was quite sophisticated and allowed you to search using any field, and organize the collection chronologically, by accession date, and by material.

They are also adding small monitors to the ends of each case, allowing users to browse the contents of the case in closer physical proximity. These compact screens  are visually very simple and easy to navigate. Objects are represented as thumbnail photographs in a grid. Touching and object icon opens a page containing its metadata. The systems seems easy to navigate, is visually unobtrusive and is automatically updated with new data every week to keep pace with new acquisitions, loans and new curatorial information for each object.

The Luce Center’s collections interfaces and the period room interactive programs are a smart technological retrofit of an existing facility and provide a strong contemporary complement to older (but still effective) exhibition techniques. To me the most interesting aspect of this interface is that it enables the Met to graphically represent the entirety of the collection in a number of ways that reveal larger trends like the proportion of objects in the collection across decades, or the proportion of silver, to glass, to ceramic, etc. These visualizations reminded me of some of the great Victorian collections displays where the entirety of the museum’s collection were visible in a kind of panoptic spectacle that was meant to convey the collection’s taxonomic structure at a glance.

Tim Ventimiglia

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4 responses to “The Met’s Luce Center for the Study of American Art

  1. For having such a strong dislike for technology these days, the visit to the Met’s Luce Center actually made me appreciate the technology they are using and what they are doing with their collection.

    At first, walking into the gallery space, it was very overwhelming and honestly a kind of turn off. However the whole “research” part of it, and learning about each artifact through the technology they use was very intriguing to me! The comparison of how far technology as come, although i’ve always known, is so much apparent now especially in museums.

    Overall, it was a very interesting trip.

  2. Michelle Jackson

    I agree with Racini too– I definitely was skeptical going in, but thought the new touch screens for the period rooms were especially great for getting information about historical figures in addition to the objects themselves. My one criticism though: I was at the Met yesterday and was excited to show a friend the period rooms, but 2 out of 3 of the touch screens were not working and just had blank gray screens. I understand that things happen and stuff can’t work 100% of the time, but a “sorry out of order” note would have at least been a bit nicer than nothing. I will be interested to see the Met continue to develop the prototypes and make them more sustainable museum tools that are constantly in use by visitors.

  3. I found the trip to the Met’s Luce Center an interesting insight to the sheer volume of storage a museum like the Met has in their ‘back of house’.
    Their improvement in technology was impressive with their touch screen information computers. I just hope with all the improvements in technology these days and how fast technology looks dated that they are able to stay on top of technology developments.

  4. Having visited the Met a number of times following our tour of the Luce Center, I have a new found appreciation for the work the Met’s staff is putting into the interactive elements and wish the accessibility of information that will be available through the Luce Center was going to implemented throughout the entire museum (as unimaginable a task that might be). As a art history student, I am always interested to know more about the object beyond what is provided on the brief chat panel. The ability to sit down at a computer in the Luce Center and learn about an object in detail, be easily lead to objects that fall in the same categorization, time period, medium, style, state and even more is an invaluable resource. The interface provides an amazing visual of the Met’s collections that cannot be easily imagined or might not even be considered by the casual museum visitor.

    The one suggestion I would make, if not already taken into consideration, is for the Met curatorial staff to monitor the browsing of objects and take note if there are trends in the searches conducted by Luce Center visitors toward certain types of objects or certain periods. Perhaps by tracking these analytics, curatorial staff can plan new exhibitions knowing that there is a public interest in certain elements of the collection.

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