By definition, museums store and display objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural significance. Want to see dinosaur skeletons, medical oddities, Civil War weapons, or Renoir masterpieces? There’s a museum out there for you. But without relatability and modern storytelling, even the most captivating exhibits can be, well, a bit stuffy and boring. Especially for young people who are used to rich, complex multimedia experiences.
Scoff at generational expectations if you will, but there’s a point here worth considering. If museums want to remain engaging and relevant in changing times, it makes sense that they would adopt new technology trends to elevate their purpose. According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), artificial intelligence is one of the biggest trends in the field to watch.
I can’t help but agree that AI’s potential here is huge — and we should all be cautiously excited about its implementation.
Yes, museums are anchored to a past in ways that make them rich with meaning. But the appreciation of art and history has as much to do with context and presentation as it does the content at hand. Moreover, if museums want to manage growing archives in a technological world, intelligent systems may be the best way to stay on top of swelling datasets — much to the aid of curators and archivists.
Here’s a look at how AI will help keep museums relevant in the future.
Trawling the archives
The 21st century brings a whole new scale of information to the table, and though it may seem too modern to be archived, today’s memes and emails will become tomorrow’s exhibits. As the AAM writes, “AI will be an essential tool for museums managing the massive scale of data in the 21st century. … Visual recognition algorithms can unlock the potential of digital image collections by tagging, sorting, and drawing connections within and between museum databases.”
As an example, the Clinton presidential library has a manageable number of emails, but President Obama’s library will contain more than a billion. According to the AMA, “AI may be the only feasible way to make meaning of archives at this scale.”
AI can keep track of and interpret mass amounts of information in a way that is useful to modern museums as archives expand. It can also authenticate museum contents by identifying fakes and forgeries.
Curating interesting collections
AI will also aid curators in putting together interesting collections that may not have been obvious to the regular person — or even the master curator, in some cases.
The Norwegian National Museum, for example, is experimenting with machine learning and deep neural networks by applying them to its collections. Machine vision adds metadata to identify and tag images, and the algorithm maps the collections based on the machine’s “context-free gaze.” Freed of human logic, the resulting connections have been unexpected and illuminating.
Letting history speak for itself
One of artificial intelligence’s most exciting applications is one more commonly seen in science fiction: the personalization of machines in regards to communication (think the movie Her). People have even coded “chatbots,” based on data from social media and other sources, to recreate the personalities of deceased loved ones.
Given the number of historical texts famous figures have left for us, there’s no reason to think the same could not be done for people like Martin Luther King Jr or Thomas Jefferson. Levels of sophistication would vary, but in theory, museum visitors could engage with bots just as they would a reenactor or educator.
Says the Center for the Future of Museums, “Chatbots of historical figures, primed by published writings, archives, and oral histories could engage with visitors inside the museum, and reach outside the museum to put history in the hands anyone who owns a smartphone.” And as robotics advance, lifelike replications could be added into the mix a la Black Mirror — creep factor be damned.
Highlighting breakthroughs in AI innovation
As AI gains prominence in a wide array of industries, it’s only natural that this technology is featured in modern museums across the world. If the goal of museums is to display objects of interest, AI already has much to contribute: AI-created art, AI defense systems, AI medical devices, and more.
Some of these applications are already featured by forward-thinking museums. At the National Museum of American History, an exhibit called Innovations in Defense: Artificial Intelligence and the Challenge of Cybersecurity ran through September 2017, featuring “the first artificial intelligence cyber defense system designed specifically to thwart attacks on our increasingly interconnected — and vulnerable — devices.”
At the Robots and Beyond exhibit at MIT Museum, Robots and Beyond visitors were treated to a behind-the-scenes look at how MIT’s AI labs make amazing advancements in medicine, underwater exploration, entertainment, and beyond.
Assisting museum visitors
A hallmark of AI in all fields is its ability to free up human employees from easily automated work. In museums, it will be no different. Instead of asking a person at a computer for information, why not ask the computer directly so human staff members can focus on more creative tasks and projects?
With this type of technology, visitors can access information and answers mined from the museum’s own collections, data, and the internet in no time. They can also use AI assistance to book tickets and plan visits without any wait time.
AI can also help museums analyze data to improve visitor experiences and make predictions about what’s to come. The National Gallery uses a tool called Dexibit to analyze visits and forecast future attendance and engagement.
As AI becomes more effective and affordable, simple plug-in applications and partnerships like this will help museums enhance their business practices without the need for AI specialists. As a standard toolkit, museums will empower and support their staff in areas ranging from marketing to analytics.
Acquainting users with everyday AI applications
More generally, if we want more people to understand the applications and challenges of AI beyond the doom-and-gloom warnings of figures like Elon Musk, acquainting visitors with the technology is a great way to do so.
Writes the AAM, “[M]useums can foster familiarity with AI and encourage discussion about the values we as a society will apply to laws, regulations, and ethics controlling the application of AI, as well as how we will respond to the resulting displacement of labor and income.”
Moving beyond glass boxes
Museums are the sacred spaces in which culture and history are both safeguarded and disseminated. But this doesn’t mean they have to be antiquated. Quite the opposite: A tech-forward museum that connects with modern times will only serve to enrich its purpose.
Whether you’re into bones or early model telephones, with the right technology, innovation should improve their accessibility and relevance beyond the plain glass box. Even better, AI-assisted museums will let their content — sometimes literally — speak for itself.
Bennat Berger is the cofounder and principal of Novel Property Ventures in New York City.