Friday, October 20, 2017

Labor 3.0: Lights Out

What: automated "lights out" manufacturing
Why museums should care: disruptions to labor and increasing economic inequality impact our communities and our audiences, as well as museums' own financial bottom line.

Many researchers predict that automation will result in massive labor displacement over the next couple of decades. According to researchers at MIT, each robot added to US workplaces reduces the workforce by 5.6 humans, and every robot that is added per 1,000 human workers results in wages dropping by as much as 0.25 to 0.5 percent. Many of these robots are used in industrial manufacturing--making automobiles, manufacturing electronics or producing chemicals and plastics. Now artificial intelligence (AI) is fueling a new round of labor disruption in fields ranging from manufacturing and retail to law to medicine. A widely cited study from Oxford University projected that automation powered by AI will contribute to the loss of up to 47% of all jobs in the US in the next 20 years. 

As we contemplate a future with fewer solid  blue collar manufacturing jobs support a middle class, the spread of small scale, distributed, digital manufacturing has been hailed as one potential producer of new jobs. Digital design plus maker-friendly technologies such as 3-D scanning and printing fuel the creation of small businesses--and small businesses account for almost fifty percent of employment. But as the following video demonstrated, these small businesses are not immune to robotic labor disruption. 



Payroll can account for thirty percent of a small businesses gross income--what small business owner could resist the prospect of a robotic employee that can work 24 hours a day (supporting so-called "lights-out manufacturing"), doesn't require health insurance and doesn't take sick leave?


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Don’t Raid the Cookie Jar: creating early interventions for deaccessioning crises


 Or, “when ethics statements are not enough…”

I’m working on the agenda for a convening hosted by the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture, December 14-15, at which participants are going to try to come up with early warning systems and practical interventions for instances in which museums are being pressured to sell collections in order to balance the books.

Today’s post is a heads up about this gathering: if you are interested in helping tackle this challenge, put the dates on your calendar and watch for an announcement about registration, which will open later this month. I’m hoping you will comment on, share, and tweet about this post (use this link: http://bit.ly/AAMCookieJar) to help my colleagues and me gauge how many people may be interested in attending.

There is already a clear consensus in our field that it is ethically wrong to use collections as a cash reserve (raiding the “deaccession cookie jar,” as Stephen Weil dubbed it in 1992). Field-wide standards codify Weil’s position, and the field has created a framework to support nuanced, ethical decisions regarding the use of funds from deaccessioning.”

But despite this consensus, every year it seems we read about a museum using or being pressured to use the sale of collections as a way to address financial needs. This happens for a variety of reasons. Some people simply disagree with the ethics standards. Some agree philosophically but feel they are faced with the choice of selling collections or closing the museum. How can we as a field provide museums with other, better choices?

That’s where this workshop comes in.

The Alliance is partnering with AAMD, AASLH, AAMG and NEMA* to bring folks together to frame out a practical toolkit that would help associations and peer institutions head off or intervene in such situations. How can our field create an “early warning system” to detect potential crises that might lead to inappropriate sales? What resources can we provide to help museums find other options to address their financial needs?

Here’s what we won’t do at this gathering: Revisit the ethical or legal strictures regarding the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned collections. That topic was comprehensively reviewed by the Direct Care task force in 2015-2016, and continues to be addresses in sessions at various professional meetings.

Here is what we will do: Get people talking together and working together to create practical interventions that help reduce the instances of museums selling collections to meet financial needs.

We will prime our discussions with remarks from a few speakers from inside and outside the field, but the focus of this meeting will be on doing real work. Participants will split into small groups to generate ideas, and come together to share, discuss, and critique our compiled list of possible actions.

The Alliance will compile and share the outcomes of the convening—ideas for toolkits, scripts, or interventions—to help ensure museums have other, better financial options than selling collections.

See you in Cambridge?


*Association of Art Museum Directors, American Association for State and Local History, Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, New England Museum Association

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Museums in a Driverless Future

How many people get to your museum by driving their own cars? When they arrive, where do they park? If you are designing a new museum, or a renovation, what parking structures are included in your master plan? I hope today's post prompts you realize that the answers to all those questions may change radically in the next few decades, due to the rapid rise of self-driving cars.  


We've been envisioning driverless cars for decades--see this ad
from the 1950s, for example. But now they've gone from the realm of fiction

to real world use. 
Autonomous vehicles are already on the road in California, Texas, Arizona, Washington, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Last week the US House of Representatives passed the SELF DRIVE Act with bipartisan support. If approved by the Senate, the bill would establish a federal framework for the regulation of self-driving cars in the US, facilitating local experimentation and accelerating adoption. Experts vary on when cars with some degree of autonomy will go mainstream. Credible estimates range from five years to two decades. A recent study by RethinkX forecast that by 2030, self-driving cars could cut car ownership by 80 percent. Any of these estimates lie within the timeline of planning for urban and museum infrastructure.

Cities are already thinking about how to use the bounty of space no longer devoted to parking. According to the research firm Gensler, the US has about 500 million parking spaces to serve 326 million people. Parking infrastructure covers an estimated 3,590 square miles, which as Gensler's researchers point out, is an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. What will we do with over two state's worth of newly available space, much of it in land-hungry urban areas?

Recently over 600 people gathered at the Skirball Center for the Driverless Future Challenge awards. A panel of New York City commissioners bestowed first place on Public Square--Reclaiming the Street, an entry submitted by FXFOWLE with Sam Schwartz Engineering. This concept (illustrated in the video below) proposes a modular system that can be used to convert parking spaces into green spaces, recreation spaces, retail, seating and other uses that suit the needs of particular neighborhoods. The architects describe this "plug-and-play" system as a way of enabling the public realm to be responsive to the ways we drive (or don't drive) in the future. 




What are the implications for our field? I venture to say that the rise of self-driving cars will affect most, if not all our institutions in one way or another. My thinking on the topic is shaped by the fact that two of the museums I worked at, early in my career, inherited freakishly large parking lots from the historic structures they colonized. The Children's Museum of Dartmouth, MA lived in an old dairy barn and previous owners, who had converted it to a restaurant, paved over a good acre or so for parking. Cincinnati Museum Center moved into that city's historic train terminal. Take a gander at THIS lot.


(Cincinnati's historic Union Terminal,
For scale, notice the teeeeeeny cars in the foreground)

It's worth spending some time envisioning how a car-free-ish future may change the landscape of your community, your museum's own campus, and who visits your museum. 

  • What will you do with the space formerly devoted to cars waiting for their owners' return? You might follow the lead of the Driverless Future Challenge, and invite your community to help re-envision your space. Think about other transportation trends as well--is your city adopting commercial bikeshare stations? If so, maybe you want to house a docking station on your grounds.
  • Do you currently depend on parking fees for part of your income, and what is the net profit, when you factor in the operating costs? You may want to find new use for the space that generates at least enough to cover this lost income.
  • How should you take autonomous driving into account in the long term plans for your campus, factoring in the uncertain timeline of adoption for this technology? You might want to focus on surface parking, which is relatively easy to redevelop. (Personally, I like to think that one day Union Terminal's lots will return to the verdant beauty of the gardens originally occupying this space.) Garages are more expensive to demolish, or convert, but architects are beginning to create parking garages designed to transition to other purposes--such as apartments. Maybe museums can design new parking structures designed to facilitate conversion for other use.
  • Driverless cars will increase the mobility of people who don't or can't drive--not only Millennials, many of whom already don't bother to get drivers licenses, but also people with mobility impairments, seniors who have stopped driving for health or safety reasons, and people too young to get a license. Museums may need policies, procedures, and staffing to accommodate unaccompanied children ("hey kids, you're driving me nuts. Call a car and go to the museum for the afternoon.") Ditto for visitors young or old with significant cognitive or mobility limitations. We already receive such visitors, of course, but autonomous transportation may amplify their numbers  to the point where our response needs to be significantly different as well. Maybe museums will shift some staff displaced by automation over to visitor services, and provide personal escorts for anyone, young or old, who requires personal assistance. 

And a further futurist note...
The Driverless Future Challenge was organized by Blank Space--an online platform dedicated to "challenging architecture to rethink its role in society." I commend Blank Space's Fairy Tale Challenge to your attention as well. This annual competition solicits short stories and artwork that explore the power of architecture to shape the future. The entries are often surreal, provocative, and inspiring and serve as wonderful illustrations for the Cone of Plausibility encompassing our future cities.  


Thursday, August 31, 2017

No Walls, New Ways: Giving up the Building to Connect and Create

Hi, Nicole here! When the Floating Museum project came across our scanning feeds, Elizabeth Merritt and I were both excited by the concept. We wanted to know more about the project and how it re-imagines where museums can do their work. The team at the Floating Museum asked  independent curator Leslie Guy to share her thoughts about the project with us. Here, Guy explores the power of responsiveness and the importance of believing in community wisdom.


The city as a museum: The Floating Museum on Chicago River
Since 2015, the Floating Museum has developed a series of temporary, site responsive installations around Chicago.  Working with local artists, historians, and organizations, this collective’s work critiques conventional museum ideology while fostering community engagement and dialogue. This Chicago-based artistic collaborative activates sites designed to elevate and enhance the cultural potential of its neighborhoods.  Each of these site-specific activations is an equal exchange of knowledges, insights, perspectives, and expertise between the artistic collaborative and local stakeholders.  Their work embraces the unknown at a time when the scarcity of funding incentivizes safe programming with predictable outcomes.  There is significant risk in being unconventional when the funding community is more apt to support traditional, amply-resourced and well-established organizations.  But, creativity and innovation flourish in spaces that can accept ambiguity and encourage the pursuit of the seemingly impossible.


  

   Stakeholder conversation: Planning meeting at Southside Community Art Center



         Stakeholder Conversation: Chicago Teacher’s Union
 
Process

The Floating Museum is a collecting institution with holdings ranging from items donated by the community and  works made by contemporary artists to images of objects owned by other repositories.   The artifacts that comprise the Floating Museum’s collection are valued for the meanings that have accreted over time through their use and reinterpretation. The valuation of items in the collections is non-hierarchical; preference is given to the meaning conferred from the multiple exchanges and social interaction between the maker and the collector. Ultimately, the items in the collection are physical manifestations of the  social network that enables the collective’s project.    
Project Onward: Donation from artist Adam Elias Hines

The Floating Museum’s structures change in response to its environment.  Its forms have ranged from a barge floating on the Chicago River, to temporary  edifices in a local park, to a mutable  activation in a museum. Each of these was created to house the activities and knowledges peculiar to the given locale. The Museum’s projects resonate beyond the duration of the activation, as every interaction alters the collaborative. The team’s process of change, comparable to the formation of recombinant DNA, is precise, deliberate and intentional. Information gleaned from new, creative community partnerships is incorporated into the structure and knowledge base of the Floating Museum. The exact result of the each incorporation is not always clear. What is known is that incorporating new concepts and respecting seemingly divergent ways of knowing not only strengthens the collaborative’s work but also ensures that it remains viable and relevant.
Project expansion: Impact schematics  

In an effort to broaden their constituencies, many museums have relied heavily upon educational and public outreach programs designed to draw visitors to the museum building.  As an alternative to this strategy, mobile museums have offered methods of community outreach that can meet people where they are. But, while a mobile museum can successfully address geographic and economic barriers to access, the more complex issues of content, context and message can remain. The Floating Museum works to address these issues by embedding itself within community and by situating their practice at the nexus of challenges. And, this engagement in turn fuels the creative output of the collective.     

Imagining Structures: Illinois Institute of Technology students
in a class taught by Floating Museum Co-Director Faheem Majeed

Museums in Neighborhoods

“[The neighborhood museum]  encompasses the life of the people of the neighborhood -- people who are vitally concerned about who they are, where they come from, what they have accomplished, their values and their pressing needs.”   -- John Kincaid speaking on the formation of the Anacostia Museum in Storefront to Monument:  Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement by Andrea A. Burns

Chicago  is a complex and diverse city encompassing 237 square miles  and home to 2.6 million inhabitants living in 77 officially designated community areas. Despite the vastness of city, Chicago’s  major cultural institutions are concentrated in close proximity to its renowned lakefront.  The majority of the city’s 100 distinct neighborhoods exist beyond this narrow geographic region.        
          
Austin park: Youth engage in a building exercise
Inspired by the Black Museum Movement and models like the Kunstverlein, the Floating Museum began their first community activation in the Austin neighborhood of the city.  The impact of the work of Dr. Margaret Burroughs - a pivotal force in the Black Museum Movement, founder of two community-based institutions in Chicago,  and a mentor to two members of the Floating Museum - resonates within the work of this collective.    

In her writing about museums and location Sophie Forgan reflects, “While the respectability of institutional buildings, at least, lends credibility to the  knowledge embedded within museum displays and activities,  there are other aspects that may be examined.   A site may be acquired and a suitable edifice erected, but the resulting building is rarely isolated from its context and may be affected by the type and reputation of the neighboring urban elements.” Moving throughout Chicago and intentionally operating outside of the established cultural corridor, the work of the Floating Museum confronts conventional ideas about situational value and the primacy of locale in order to provide an innovative platform for the creative output of neighborhoods.

Austin park: Young residents use sticks and tape
to create a new museum structure


The Floating Museum collective includes Andrew Schachman, Avery R Young, Faheem Majeed and Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford. The Museum will be presenting a new installation in September 2017 for Singing Stones, a group exhibition curated by the Palais de Tokyo’s Katell Jaffres as part of the first Hors Les Murs in the United States.  

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Provoking Proposals for Phoenix

 The call for proposals for AAM’s 2018 Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo is open! I hope you are busy working on ideas you want to present in Phoenix next May.

While I work on my own session proposal, I stop periodically to make notes on sessions I hope other people are putting together. Here’s are a few topics that I, personally, would love to hear about next year—one for each of the STEEP categories (social, technological, economic, ecological and policy/political) that guide futures scanning.

I’ll go in reverse order (PEETS?) so I can lead with a policy trend related to this year’s conference theme (how museums celebrate the ways that learning and innovative educational practices can bring people of all ages, ethnicities, and demographics together). Can anyone put together a panel sharing how museums are integrating with the increasing number of schools and school systems adopting personalized learning? That phrase—“personalized learning”—is being used in a variety of ways. Sometimes it refers to computer software that lets a student progress through content at their own pace. I’m interested in the broader concept—that schools should help students tailor their course of study to their own passions and to the ways they learn best. Sometimes this approach is implemented by individual schools (such as Canada’s Blue Sky School), sometime by chains (such as Wildflower Montessori micro-schools).  Some states, notably Vermont and Rhode Island, are embedding personalized learning into the public school system. I’m hoping for a future in which students incorporate museum resources into their personal learning plans, and I’d love to hear from museums already engaged in this work.

On to Ecology. Many communities in the US and around the world face significant threats from climate change—rising sea level, increasingly frequent and severe storm events, extreme heat, drought etc. etc. City planners have to grapple with how to adapt to these risks. Some communities (internationally, some whole populations) may need to relocate altogether. I would love to hear from museums taking a lead in helping their communities plan for that future, whether through exhibits, public forums, or participation in formal government planning teams.

Economy. Financial sustainability is one of three thematic areas of focus in the Alliance’s strategic plan. For that reason, I’ve been blogging and speaking about a number of innovative, mission-related income streams being developed by museums around the world: museums operating co-working spaces or business incubators, providing professional training to medical students or law enforcement personnel, building business models around research collections resources. Some museums are becoming developers, landlords, even hotel operators in pursuit of both mission and financial stability. I hope some sessions in Phoenix share other emerging business models.

My next pick looks at the potential ripple effects of the growing popularity of personal genomics. Companies such as 23&Me are creating business based on relatively affordable home “spit tests” to create personalized reports about an individual's DNA. Ancestry.com, which already has built a thriving business around genealogical research, has launched AncestryDNA, with the sales pitch “uncover your ethnic mix, discover distant relatives, and find new details about your unique family history.” I’ve always considered personal genealogical research as a way to hook people on history more broadly. Are there museums out there helping people use their personal genomic profiles to connect to stories, and objects, in the museum?

Wrapping up with a social/cultural issue, I would really like to attend a session that might be titled “Difficult Conversations in the Age of Social Media.” There are so many platforms now on which people share their concerns—this makes it extremely challenging for an organization to figure out when, and how, to respond. When is it effective to use Twitter to respond to tweeted complaints, and when it is better to pick up the phone? How can museums respond when a negative hashtag goes viral? I don’t know whether to classify this as part of the public relations track (and drop hints to the PR and Marketing Professional Network), or whether this is more a more fundamental issue regarding communications skills, and communication norms, in our digital age. I just know I could use some shared wisdom on the topic!

I asked my colleague Dr. Nicole Ivy, Director of Inclusion at the Alliance, and fellow museum futurist, whether there are any sessions she would like to instigate. She suggested Museums and the Future of Work. Nicole writes, “Futurists and other thought leaders describe a future workforce characterized by automation, distributed work sites, and increased freelancing and contingent work. Many people project that in this new and fundamentally changed workforce, the conventional educational path (college courses and degrees followed by graduate-level study) will give way to new forms of professional development. These new forms of training will enable workers to quickly learn new skills and practice them in globalized and evolving job markets. Has your museum witnessed signs of the changing work landscape? Have you utilized new tools—including open data and artificial intelligence—to transform your museum’s internal operations and/or visitor engagement? Have you recruited--or hired--staffs whose educational backgrounds lie outside of traditional museum studies professionalization? How have you, or your museum, initiated or responded to changes in the way the field does its work?”

Neither Nicole nor I sit on the National Program Committee, so we don’t get a vote on what is included in the final program. What we CAN do is offer feedback, advice, leads and encouragement if you want to develop any of these ideas into session proposals. Contact us at emerritt (at) aam-us.org and nivy (at) aam-us.org. On
Twitter I am @futureofmuseums and Nicole is @nicotron3000. You can use the comment section, below, to search for collaborators, and/or start a discussion thread on Museum Junction. I look forward to seeing you in Phoenix!


Update as I publish: The Museum of International Folk Art and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience are organizing a session proposal around the theme of working with people in prison and invite other organizations doing similar work to contact them about possibly joining that panel presentation. To take them up on this invitation, contact Tramia Jackson, Program Associate, Methodology and Practice, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, tjackson (at) sitesofconscience.org

Yours from the future,


Elizabeth

Thursday, July 27, 2017

From Brown vs. Board to Ferguson: Fostering Dialogue on Education, Incarceration, and Civil Rights

In researching the chapter on criminal justice reform for TrendsWatch 2017, I was impressed and heartened by the number of museums working with incarcerated populations. Today’s post is by Patricia Sigala, Educator/Community Outreach Coordinator at the Museum of International Folk Art, who serves as the museum’s representative for the initiative From Brown vs. Board to Ferguson, organized by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

In late Fall of 2015, the Gallery of Conscience (GoC) at the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, embarked on From Brown vs. Board to Ferguson. This three-year project, executed in partnership with eleven other museums and historic sites around the country, fostered much-needed community dialogues for youth on the intersectional connections between race, education equity and incarceration in the context of civil rights history.

Organized by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and funded in part through the generous support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, this program is designed to draw on the power of museums as safe, brave spaces for community youth to explore what has become known as the “school to prison pipeline” in their communities. Through intensive dialogue trainings, targeted civil rights education, and arts-based activities this program provides youth with the tools and the opportunity to amplify their voices, engage with their communities around these issues, and become leaders and advocates to fight systems of oppression that adversely affect youth communities of color in their communities

The first step for each of the participating museums and historic sites was to identify a community partner with which to develop and pilot a series of dialogue workshops around school to prison pipeline issues in their communities. MOIFA was lucky in this regard as we already had the perfect partner! For several years, MOIFA’s Education Outreach Coordinator had cultivated a strong relationship with the Gordon Bernell Charter School (GBCS) of Albuquerque, New Mexico, through the museum’s popular Folk Art To Go school program. GBCS is an innovative and nationally recognized high school tasked with providing opportunities for at-risk populations to complete their high school diplomas. It is housed both within the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) and at a downtown campus in the city.

As part of Folk Art to Go, MOIFA’s educator worked closely with the art and humanities teacher at the MDC to bring traditional, handmade examples of folk art into the male and female inmate classrooms and conduct workshops on the ways in which folk arts serve as inspiration and a bridge towards cultural understanding. Each tightly monitored 70-minute session also included a hands-on art making activity, often sparked by the inmates’ own cultural or religious traditions, including Hispanic Catholic-inspired retablo painting, amate bark painting, and Day of the Dead ofrendas. The activities also included paƱo (handkerchief) art--a tradition instigated among Hispanic prison populations to send messages home to their loved ones through paintings and messages drawn on handkerchiefs. These sessions were particularly relevant to the targeted students in New Mexico and the detention center, who were overwhelmingly Hispanic and Native American.


As a direct result of the trust built through this collaboration, MOIFA was able to garner support from GBCS to develop and pilot the Coalition’s latest project with female high school students—one of the most affected populations in the school-to prison pipeline. This project works primarily with women between the ages of 20 and 40 working to complete their high school diplomas who were currently incarcerated in the MDC.

Each museum in the From Brown vs. Board to Ferguson initiative developed dialogue programs based on the strength of their collections, exhibits, or missions. MOIFA’s program focused on folk and traditional arts to catalyze these conversations of conscience around these issues. Along with our community partners, we developed a curriculum that used traditional paintings and visual arts, contemporary poetry forms, folk music, and film to spark these conversations.

Over the course of two months in the fall of 2016, MDC women inmates participated in four facilitated dialogue workshops during which they explored their own experiences with the structural issues involving the school to prison pipeline in their communities, especially as they adversely affect women and young girls of color. Each workshop began with participants selecting and talking about samples of folk art that resonated with the their experiences at home, in school, or in encounters with the law; watching a documentary based on oral histories of at–risk youth in school; crafting poetry based on their reactions to the art; analyzing the lyrics to folk songs of protest; or exploring public art forms of protest such as wall murals and graffiti art around the world.

Once we completed the pilot program, we spent the following semester testing it with a group of at-risk youth in Santa Fe, who corresponded with inmate “mentors” through letters, poetry, and art.

Museums can be tremendous resources for incarcerated youth and can help to break the pipeline leading from school to prison. In case you are considering tackling this good work at your own institution, here is some advice based on MOIFA’s work with The Gordon Bernell Charter School Metropolitan Detention Center.
  • Identify and establish a relationship with a member of the prison facility’s staff to support your project, accompany, and supervise your approved visit(s). This individual will be invaluable in opening doors and guiding you in the prison system.
  • Become familiar with the procedures required by the facility you are working with, including forms you need to complete, lists of what you can and cannot bring into the facility (which may constrain your program materials!), what ID will be required, etc.
  • Ask about the procedures for photographing program participants. You may need advance permission from prison authorities, as well as from individual participants. (Some inmates may not give permission due to pending court cases, or other personal reasons.)
  • Eat before you enter the facility, as you may not have access to the staff cafeteria.
  • If you are working on a project that requires more than one visit and you want to reach the same inmate population, schedule your visits a week to two weeks in advance, in order to factor in the dates on which inmates will be released. Be prepared with substitute participants in case a participant is released before your program is complete.
  • Introduce yourself to the inmates and state clearly your objectives. In our dialogues, we collaboratively established ground rules, identified the purpose of and who was the note taker.
  • Be an active listener, taking into account all contributions.
  • Relax, respect and reflect on the unique opportunity you have to engage with incarcerated individuals.

The Gallery of Conscience is a participatory space within The Museum of International Folk Art which draws on the words and works of contemporary folk artists to catalyze conversations and engage communities in issues of conscience in our world. From Brown vs. Board to Ferguson is the second national initiative spearheaded by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience in which MOIFA’s Gallery of Conscience has participated in. The first, the National Dialogues on Immigration, coincided with the Gallery of Conscience’s exhibition Between Two Worlds: Folk Artists Reflect on the Immigrant Experience.

For more on our school-to-prison initiative from the perspective of our community co-facilitator, poet Hakim Bellamy, see the blog post “Changing Lives From the Inside Out.”

Thursday, July 20, 2017

AI and the Future of History

If you want to learn more about how artificial intelligence may shape the future of museums, join me on Wednesday, July 26 at 1 pm ET for a free webinar presented by Blackbaud, with special guests Jeffrey Inscho of The Studio at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and Blackbaud’s Anthony Tomaino.

If you could chat with any historical figure, who would you choose?

That question (or a variants such as “who would you invite to dinner”) is used as a pick-up line, debated on the web, even used in in job interviews. Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, it’s close to becoming a practical question, one with disruptive implications for museums that strive to help audiences engage with the past. What if museums and archives could actually invite people to speak with the dead?

That thought was sparked by reading a recent Wired article in which James Vlahos recounts how he created a kind of digital immortality for his father in the form of a conversational artificial intelligence program. “Dadbot,” as he dubbed the project, draws on transcripts of interviews James recorded after his 80 year old father, John James Vlahos, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In 2016, James began feeding that data into PullString, a program designed to create “conversational agents.” (James came across PullString when he was research a story for the New York Times about Hello Barbie, a “chatty, artificially intelligent update of the world’s most famous doll.”)

James spent hundreds of hours mining the recordings he’d made with his father (totaling 91,970 words) to create Dadbot.  At first the chatbot could only converse via text messages. Later he used PullString options that let Dadbot talk out loud via Amazon’s Alexa device, and to embed audio files of his father singing or telling stories into the text message threads. Here’s a short video showing Dadbot at work:


Dadbot is about more than content—it’s about capturing some element of personality.  In the article, James says “I don’t want it to only represent who my father is. The bot should showcase how he is as well. It should portray his manner (warm and self-effacing), outlook (mostly positive with bouts of gloominess), and personality (erudite, logical, and above all, humorous).”

When he proposed the Dadbot project to his parents, James explained that his motivation was to share his father’s life story in a dynamic way. His father, while not overly impressed, gave his approval, noting that he is comforted by the thought of Dadbot sharing his memories and stories with others, “My family, particularly. And the grandkids, who won’t know any of this stuff.”

While James created Dadbot to fill a personal need, I see the potential for museums to fill a public need by using conversational AI to bring history to life in a dynamic, engaging manner. I’m not the first to have that thought: James quotes PullString’s CEO, Oren Jacob as saying “I want to create technology that allows people to have conversations with characters who don’t exist in the physical world—because they’re fictional, like Buzz Lightyear, or because they’re dead, like Martin Luther King.”

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 smart phone. You could even deliver this kind of conversation AI via a robot, though until we get better at emulating human faces, that kind of embodiment is likely to tumble into the “uncanny valley” of looking just human enough to be creepy. (See, for example, this video in which the disembodied head of robot Bina 48 chats with the person her AI is designed to emulate.)

There are a number of compelling projects that use social media to bring historical records to life. From 2014- 2016, Cool Antarctica tweeted entries from the record of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition on the Endurance, transposed 100 years into the future. A coalition of organizations in Leicester, UK—Including the Imperial War Museum—are using the blog Captain J.D. Hills Letters from the Front to publish the letters of this WWI soldier 100 years to the day after they were written. These projects bring history to life by injecting individual voices into social feeds. Historical chatbots could turn this one-way push of content into a two-way conversation.

Are there potential downsides? Sure. For one thing, museums need to work through issues of consent. James sought his family’s permission before building Dadbot. In the future, will museums collecting oral histories routinely seek permission to adapt this content into an AI versions of the interviewee? What about the ethics of using AI to give voice to people who are already deceased—should their families be consulted first? Are figures from the distant past fair game?   

I suppose that when AI become sufficiently advanced, an historical chatbot might be a bit too convincing, leading users to forget they are interacting with an algorithmic emulation of what the real person might have thought, or said. Then again, immersive historic sites such as Colonial Williamsburg already face that danger. By complying with some basic modern standards of sanitation, do they leave visitors with a “sanitized” understanding of what it was like to live in the colonial era?

James, for one, thinks we will have to tackle the ethical and practical challenges presented by advanced AI, predicting that the bot of the future will be able to not only reproduce what people actually said, but “generate new utterances,” and be emotionally perceptive and responsive in a conversation.

So, maybe I will get to chat with Charles Darwin after all.