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How technology is changing visitors’ experiences at the Dayton Art Institute

“What is a Masterpiece?” initiative allows visitors to cater learning experience surrounding 50 museum pieces.

Technology is changing art museums, just as it’s changing so many other aspects of life.

A great case in point is “What is a Masterpiece?” a new initiative at the Dayton Art Institute that allows visitors to learn a lot more fascinating information about 50 of the museum’s greatest treasures. Future plans call for adding more pieces to the tour.

If you’re in the galleries, you can stand in front of the actual piece of art to access the tidbits via the QR code label that will take you directly to information about that specific work. You can also opt to check out the information in the comfort of your own home or elsewhere. All it requires is a smartphone, tablet or computer with internet access. You can bring your own iPad or smartphone to the museum, or rent an iPad for four hours for $3.

Susan Anable, education director, said the museum is among only a small number in the United States offering this type of mobile-based interactive tour of its collection. She said she hopes the project will engage audiences in dialogue and conversation about what constitutes a masterpiece.

Elyse Fenstermacher, digital content coordinator for the project, spent a year working with the DAI, researching and interpreting the masterworks for the interactive website. What makes it unique, she said, is the depth of information it holds and its accessibility. If the museum had chosen to do an app rather than a mobile website, users of certain operating systems would not be able to use it, she said. Most of the artworks featured in “What is a Masterpiece?” have at least five or six content tabs, and all of them have a “Talk Back” button — where the visitor can provide feedback.

“I really loved how it made me spend more time digging into individual pieces, and made me look at them in a whole new way,” said Amy Forsthofel of Dayton’s McPherson Town neighborhood, who says she’s been visiting the DAI for the past 20 years but often “breezed by” a work of art without really paying much attention to it.

“Getting more context and background on both the piece and the artist really help me appreciate these masterpieces individually,” she said, adding that using the iPad was fun. “I loved jumping around to what interested me most instead of having to wade through a typical audio tour waiting for the nuggets I am seeking.”

Researching the information

Fenstermacher said the goal was to give museum visitors an opportunity to see the art come to life on a tablet or smartphone. Her task began with interpreting the grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Sciences, which funded the project, and developing a framework for each object.

How it works

Different types of information are available. For example, someone interested in how an object is made could begin with Tools and Techniques tabs by pushing a button and then move to Signs and Symbols to decode the artwork’s meaning.

“As a lover of all forms of art, it was important to me to include the Arts Intersected tabs, which offer poetry and music — some of which was recorded specially for this project by Dayton’s early music group Wind in the Woods,” Fenstermacher explained, adding that what makes an artwork a “masterpiece” is fundamentally a subjective idea, something that is different for each of us.

The research

Fenstermacher said she approached the research with the idea that every single work of art is absolutely fascinating, and that “What is a Masterpiece?” is like a breadcrumb trail pointing visitors toward a deeper understanding of art. So she focused on the type of information that makes each artwork accessible and, essentially, human.

“An ancient Indian railing pillar from a Buddhist monument becomes a lot more interesting if you think about how the rulers who funded it plastered the outside of the shrine with images from folk religion, which have nothing to do with Buddhism at all,” she said. “It’s like coating an apple in caramel to get a child to eat the apple.”

You’ll hear conversations between local art history professors, who were given a microphone and a work of art and asked to chat about it.

“No script, no guidelines or interview questions; just a conversation,” said Fenstermacher, who added that those segments were inspired by the work of Smarthistory: the idea that hearing two people casually discuss their observations psychologically opens up the conversation to a third voice: the thoughts of the museum visitor.

Seeing a work of art differently

Technology also gives visitors using “What is a Masterpiece?” both in the museum and at home the chance to view certain works of art as they haven’t been seen in centuries. Using the “Arqspin” app for iPad (, the curatorial team at the DAI was able to capture 360 degree “spins” of small sculptural works that can then be manipulated on a digital screen. For example, if you tap on the “Look Closer” tab for the ancient Greek amphora (container), you can give it a spin, change directions and magnify the view.

“Then think about how the last time this fragile work of art was seen from this perspective, spinning on a wheel, was when it was being formed from wet clay over 2,500 years ago!” Fenstermacher said.

Docent offers examples

Barb Jorgensen, who has been a docent at the museum for 13 years,says the new program personalizes a museum trip by offering an interactive in-depth experience with an individual artwork.

“For example, for Hopper’s High Noon, you can hear a discussion about the mystery of the painting, read a poem by a Dayton poet inspired by the painting, hear and read a discussion about Hopper featuring Steve Martin, or hear how a conservator sees a work of art,” the Beavercreek guide said.

Other possibilities, according to Jorgensen:

  • “For our wonderful Kuosi Elephant Mask Costume you can hear a commentary on African art as it relates to the work of Picasso or watch a video of the costume actually being worn for its special ceremony,” Jorgensen said.
  • “For the Japanese swords, you can see a sword-smith making a sword, explore the subtle designs on the surface,” she said
  • “For Monet’s masterpiece, you can learn about the paint pigments used by Monet, see a film of Monet painting, hear a discussion of the influence of impressionism on abstract expressionism, see paintings of flowers done by kids, or hear more about Monet as a person.”


Jorgensen says there are activities for the kids and opportunities for visitors to respond to the art and then post the response to Facebook or the Internet.

Forsthoefel says the new program is a perfect compliment to the QR code program the museum started a couple years ago. Wi-Fi has been installed throughout the museum galleries as well as in the new Leo Bistro restaurant and museum store as part of the project.

“When I was doing my ‘test drive,’ I also witnessed a mom and her young daughter using the program,” she said. “She couldn’t wait to see what was next! As an art lover, it thrilled me to see the child so engaged in the art!”

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