Capture the Pheon: Mary Cameron’s Volunteer Experience at SAAM

This past Saturday I had the opportunity to volunteer with the event Pheon at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  I have to admit I wasn’t sure what to except.  When I signed up for the event the only thing I knew about it was that it was an “Alternative Reality Game” and that I was assigned to sit at the “Stave table”.

When I got to the museum I went up to the Luce Center and found the Stave table.  Here another volunteer explained the event to me.  It turns out that Pheon is a high tech scavenger hunt.  Designed by John Maccabee of the San Francisco-based ARG development company CityMystery, visitors complete a series of missions based on the collections from the museum.  To add to the fun CityMystery came up with a back story for the game.   According to this set-up two warring factions, the Staves and the Knaves, are trying to restore balance by capturing the Pheon after intruders from the “real world” (the Seers) have upset their virtual world called Terra Tectus.

When participants first arrived they answered a few questions such as “would you rather pig out on pretzels or cupcakes” or “would you rather play offensive or defensive in a football game.”  Based on their answers the visitor was assigned to either the “Stave” or “Knave” team.  They then completed a series of scavenger hunt-like tasks throughout the museum.  They had to search for clues in paintings, make aluminum foil sculptures, go “under disguise” by wearing a fake moustache, and get clues via text messaging.  The Stave and Knave teams were in friendly competition to see who could get the most participants to finish.  At the Stave table my job was to stamp the visitors’ form after they finished each task, pass out the fake moustaches, and give out prizes when they completed the whole challenge.    I really enjoyed helping the visitors, and seeing how excited they got when they finished everything.  I’m happy to say that when I left the museum at 3:00 the Staves were winning.  According to the website the Staves ended up winning by one team.

Participating in this event demonstrated to me that museum programming has tons of potential for being fun and interactive.  As the visitors came back to my table they told me that the activities were getting them to look at the art work in new ways.  Many of the participants were college age, a group that is often under served by event programming, as usually these events either focus on children or adults.  Any event that gets new visitors into a museum is certainly a success, especially when they have fun being there.

Do you think this type of programming is a good idea for museums?  Some may complain that it is “edutainment”- a mixture of education and entertainment.  Is this worthwhile for museums to pursue or does it somehow lower the “value” of the artwork?

See below for some pictures from the event.

Your's Truly Handing Out Moustaches

One of the Challanges- Aluminum Horses

Posing Participants


Spotlight on Student Research: Kellie Burris Walton

As part of the M.A. Art History program, students are required to produce two “in-lieu of thesis” papers.  These papers must be at least 35 pages.  Often students go through several drafts of the paper with their adviser, as they work to shape it into a scholarly piece of writing.  In the following weeks the blog will highlight some examples of research being conducted by current students.  This week we’ll be looking at Kellie Burris Walton’s work

Kellie is developing a paper that examines the way in which colonial portraiture during the late seventeenth and early to mid-eighteenth centuries reflected the prescribed gender roles for women of this period.  While the final appearance of a portrait was determined by a number factors including the region where it was created, the social and economic status of the sitter, and the skills of the artist, careful visual analysis of such a work indicates that within the colonies, a woman’s duty as a wife and mother outweighed all others in importance.  In her paper Kellie explains that a survey of these portraits ultimately allows the viewer to construct a model of the proper and fruitful woman, a concept stressed on women of this period, beginning as early as childhood.  To support this assertion, Kellie’s paper examines multiple examples of female portraiture from this time, considering them in conjunction with the British mezzotint sources often consulted by the artists as well as etiquette books of this period outlining the behavior deemed appropriate for these sitters.

Kellie discusses the well-known portrait of Elizabeth Freake and her daughter Mary as a means of setting up a discourse regarding gender roles in the new world (see image  below).   By deconstructing this image Kellie explains that is serves as a reflection of Mrs. Freake’s role as a wife and mother but also as a subscriber to the Calvinist ideology so influential upon Boston’s merchant class.  Kellie expands this discussion of maternal imagery to include the use of fruit as a signifier of a woman’s fecundity, reflecting her success as a wife and mother or, as illustrated by the portrait of the young Jane Clark, advertising this quality to potential suitors.   At times this essay also relies heavily on comparisons between colonial portraiture and British mezzotint sources as a way to emphasize the distinctly colonial aspects of these gender roles.  The consideration of such sources underscores the specific aristocratic values which colonists rejected in favor of a more pragmatic ideology,

not only within the portraits themselves, but also in their daily lives.  Furthermore, the paper examines iconographical elements as well as the physical traits of the sitters, showing how the monarchical imagery of the mezzotints was expurgated to allow for the expression of such colonial ideals.  Ultimately, this paper exposes these portraits as far more than simple depictions of colonial women, demonstrating their role in perpetuating colonial ideals of womanly virtue.

Thanks for sharing your work with us Kellie! Stay tuned for more examples of student research.

Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary, c. 1671-1674, The Freake Limner

Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration

A few weeks ago I saw the exhibit Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  The exhibit includes more than one hundred of Close’s finished works, grids, and proofs, revealing his process of experimentation and creation.  Close was born in Monroe, Washington in 1940. He graduated from the University of Washington (BFA, art) in 1962 and from Yale (MFA, art) in 1964.  In the 1960s he chose to buck the prevailing artistic trend of abstract expressionism and create large scale portraits of himself as well as his friends and family.  I learned from our docent that Chuck Close has prosopagnosia, or face blindness.  This means he cannot recognize people by their features.  It was this disorder that first inspired Close to create his huge portraits.  Close has created his portraits using many kinds of mediums, such as photography, painting, and collage.  However, this exhibit focuses on his work as a printmaker.  Close uses a variety of printmaking techniques, including woodcut, silk screen, aquatint, and spitbite etching.

As is noted in the title, collaboration is a major part of Chuck Close’s work.  Often his fellow artists pick up themes that Close creates and re-interprets them in new mediums.  For example, Close’s friend created a blanket using the pattern from one of Close’s prints.  A video at the end of the exhibit shows how a team of Close’s studio assistants worked together to create a print, recalling the workshop process of Renaissance artists.

The exhibit will be the Corcoran until September 26th, and is definitely worth checking out.

Great Programming at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

SAAM offers a rich variety of programming all year round, and best all of it’s free! Ranging from lectures to movies to music, there really is something for everyone.  Here is the upcoming fall schedule:


This is a round table discussion about contemporary Latina artists.

Date: Friday, September 10

Time: 6:30

Steinway Series

Classical music concert

Date: Sunday, September 12

Time: 3:00-5:00 p.m.

Clarice Smith Lecture with Erica Hirshler

Scholar’s Talk on John Singer Sargent. Reception to follow

Date: Wednesday, September 15

Time: 7:00 p.m.


Alternative Reality Game

Date: Saturday, September 18

Time: 12 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Autumn Glow

Musical Concert at the Renwick Gallery

Date: Saturday, September 18

Hours: 3-5 p.m.

Shop Talk

Roundtable discussion at Renwick Gallery featuring curator, artists and collectors from new turned wood exhibition.

Date: Friday, September 24

Hours: 12:00 PM.

Norman Rockwell, American Art and The Movies

Symposium discussing Rockwell exhibition and motion pictures influence.

Date: Friday, September 24

Hours: 3:00 PM