Interactivity by Design at the Lincoln Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

I walked into the National Portrait Gallery thinking that I would find interactivity around every corner. My world is so often besieged with interactivity that I failed to remember that not every experience necessitates interactive components. Moving from room to room around the museum, I noticed that pieces in most exhibits were only loosely connected; pieces didn’t build upon each other to establish a narrative. A theme perhaps, but not a story. Interactivity wasn’t needed to create a framework. The fact that a work had been selected for an exhibit was the context. Art, after all, is an experience in and of itself, without timelines, video, or touchscreens to explain significance. Quickly gathering that I wasn’t going to find what I had envisioned, I started to look for other ways that interactivity was present, and eventually found myself in the Lincoln Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Located on the east side of the third floor (a section of the museum I’d never visited), the interactivity of the Lincoln Gallery was not the result of added interactive features, but simply the nature of the art and the space that it inhabited. All of the pieces were either three-dimensional—meaning you could walk around the work and view it from all sides—or if hanging on the wall, was two-dimensional and could be viewed from a seating area. The gallery itself was large and airy, allowing people to spread out and move at their own pace. The artwork was not arranged in any particular order. All of these characteristics encouraged the viewer to experience the gallery and each work in their own way. While not what I was initially expecting, I realized that this was a form of interaction; encouraging personalization and the creation of individual meaning. I think that is what interactivity is all about: allowing the viewer to customize their experience. Choice affords a degree of control and depth not attainable in a static presentation.

An additional layer of interactivity was facilitated by the furniture in the gallery. Curved modern couches filled the main space, inviting an alternate viewing experience or the option to comfortably converse. The entire length of the gallery was visible, giving a different perspective on the works within it. Small colorful stools and minimal leather benches placed at random throughout the space changed the height at which pieces could be viewed and provided an opportunity to linger. Despite a lack of familiar interactive elements—such as multimedia—interactivity was present in the overall concept and design of the gallery. The ability to take in the artwork from different angles, heights, and vantage points promoted a sense of engagement not found in many other parts of the Portrait Gallery.

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