Sunday, June 18, 2023

Museums in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

You would not think that museums need to be up to date in their technology. Aviation should be, but museums? I have recently joined a board of directors for a small museum and learned that it realy needs a technology update: One department cannnot see what another is working on. Not even the director and the assistant director can share their work.

Now, there is Artificial Intelligence, a technology which is not that new but one that suddenly everyone is talking about. We are already using it if we have an Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple Siri. Investors are pouring money into it, a sign of its future importance.

In a 2023 briefing to the European Parliament called, “Artificial Intelligence in the Context of Cultural heritage and Museums: complex challenges and new opportunities” it was pointed out the many ways AI is already used by museums. For instance, the Rijksmuseum learned that their famous Rembrandt of “The Night Watch” had its bottom and left side cut off. AI technology gave conservators the information to reconstruct the missing areas and put the full composition of this masterpiece back on view.

I was referred recently to an article on Artnet News of June 5, 2023 with the heading: Museums May Not Lead Technological Innovation, But here’s the Vital Role They Play in an A.I. Powered Age”. It credits Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and cultural Advisor András Szántó, with organizing an event that stressed what A.I. means to art institutions. The “The Museums of Tomorrow Roundtable” included delegates from 13 countries around the world. Though the theme of the meeting was technology, Campbell implies that it was a surprise that AI became the main topic of conversation.

It didn’t surprise me after reading a June 2021 article in the online publication “Museum Next” titled “How Art Museums Using Artificial Intelligence and is A.I. the Future of Museums”. In it Lauren Styx writes, “Notably, the world is still in the phase of ‘training the toddler’…”.

“In 2016, Paris’ Musée du Quai Branly made a home for Berenson” This robotic art critic, created by an anthropologist, Denis Vidal and robotics engineer Philippe Gaussier, was used to learn people’s reactions to works of art to see if it could “develop its own taste”. It was named after Bernard Berenson (1865 – 1959) the American Art Historian who was considered THE expert on Renaissance art. The actual process I will let you read for yourself:,for%20both%20visitors%20and%20staff.

The question that presented itself to Berenson’s inventors was, would the robot be able to build aesthetic preferences as it interacted with museum visitors? It did. The public is able to interact with robots and learn about a work of art. Previously you had to go on a live or audio tour or, more recently, consult your smart phone. Fed enough information from published material the museum robots will be able to tell stories about the art and artists. Here is a Museum docent in Dubai.

The Metropolitan Museum is also into A.I. to improve the visitor experience. Mitra Azizirad, corporate vice president of AI Marketing at Microsoft:“The close partnership between The Met, MIT, and Microsoft is a great example of how AI is empowering curators and technologists to make art and human history accessible and relevant to everyone on the planet.”

Several museums in Washington, including the Hirschhorn, already use a robot named Pepper which speaks 15 languages. Museum visitors reportedly enjoy interacting with the robot and learning what it has to say. It was, developed in 2015 by the French company Aldebaran Robotics. The public interacts using a touch screen and the robot responds verbally and with gestures. You no longer have to listen to a pre-recorded text about a work of art but rather interact with a humanoid who can answer what you actually want to know.

An idea I found on Linked In, I really like. It was expressed under the byline “Bluecadet” and called “Artificial Intelligence and the Modern Museum”. (April 4, 2023). Large museums have extensive collections. AI can analyze these collections, identifying patterns and themes. By drawing connections between disparate departments, e.g. Old Master paintings, European decorative arts, Asian art, visitors will gain a better understanding of these cultures and how they may relate to each other. They can also learn the overarching mission of the institution.

Like it or not we have to learn to not only cope with new technology, but, for peace of mind, embrace it as well. Almost daily now I read some article about the dangers of A.I. But I choose to think positively, seeing how it can improve the experiences of museum visitors.

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