Observation at The Met Fifth Avenue: How is the museum tour guide in including different kinds of visitors.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest art museum in US and the third most visited art museum in the world. The main building in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in one of the world’s largest art galleries. As was posted on January 4, 2019 that 1,659,647 visitors were attracted to The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters from May 10, 2018 to October 8, 2018. Based on the data from Wikipedia and MET official website, with such large number of visitors from all over the world, I began to curious how the visit guide provided by the museum service did well in considering different kinds of visitors.

According to what I learnt from Design Justice, the tour guide designed by MET should aim to ensure a more equitable distribution of the benefits and in this case, the museum tour guide should also consider non-English speakers, people with disabled, etc.

I went to The Met Fifth Avenue on 27th, Sep. to directly observe as a visitor and my goal was to see whether different kinds of visitors were guided friendly and effectively in visiting the museum. It was a cloudy afternoon with crowded visitors, and I waited for 10 minutes in line to get my ticket.

1 Manual Guide

I saw several cicerones surrounded by a small number of visitors. I joined them for free. Some visitors followed by cicerones carried backpacks and not seemed like locals. The good thing for getting a manual guide is that you could directly ask questions and get answers, especially for history or art fanatics who are always filled with questions.

But this method is not that feasible for visitors who prefer to get through the museum quickly and are not fluently English speakers. Since you are guided by a certain route and listening to deep explanations of the exhibits really takes time. In this period, I found some of visitors would only follow a few minutes then left the group to visit by themselves.

2 Audio Guide Rent Onsite

These days the most commonly used tour guide in museum is audio guide. At the museum lobby visitors could easily find the words “Audio Guide”, and the return place was also obvious to find. During my observation period, I found no more than 50% visitors were using audio guide and I guess it was because the audio guide in MET was not free, or some were not first-time visitors or some just preferred to quickly visit the whole museum without deep explanations.

2.1 Whether considering non-English speakers.

Yes. The audio guide provided by MET contains 10 different languages, which is especially considerable for foreign visitors. When I visited the museum, I found a lot of Asian visitors renting audio guide and listening to the guide frequently. It’s much effective for them to get the explanations in their mother language.

2.2 Whether considering visitors with disabilities.

During my observation period, I did not find disabled visitors. But I found some information on the MET website that the museum offered assistive listening devices and real-time captioning for visitors with hearing loss.

2.3 Whether considering aged visitors.

I found an old woman who seemed uneasy to input numbers into the audio guide to get the explanations. And some visitors seemed tired to hold the guide near their ears to listen all the time and they needed to find a place to sit or change to another hand to hold the guide. I think the interaction method between visitors and audio guides is not that friendly especially for aged visitors. Manually inputting numbers could waste time. Besides, the guide is not that easy and convenient while the MET is large, and most visitors would stay more than 2 hours.

I guess it’s better to add automatic induction function to the audio guide and visitors don’t need to input numbers themselves but only to answer yes or no to listen the guide. In addition, always holding the guide near ear to listen is not convenient. Why not provide earphones to aged visitors together with audio guide? Or support the visitors using their own earphones.

2.4 Whether considering visitors who prefer quickly visiting the whole museum.

I did find a visitor hanging the audio guide around her neck, but she didn’t use it during the whole process. And some only listened a few seconds then gave it up. I guess the contents provided in audio guide were too long and they only wanted to get a concise version. They came to the museum to get something new but not preferred to get that deep understanding towards a single exhibit. In that case, perhaps better to provide different versions for visitors to choose from. For instance, a quick 1-minute explanation together with a detailed 5-minute version.

3 The MET App

There is an App called The MET which also provides travel guides and even augmented reality function. The good thing is you could use it offline, while the bad thing is that you have to download it beforehand. How many visitors would take trouble to download an App to help them visit the museum? I guess better to develop a Web App for visitors who just want to visit temporarily.

During my observation period, I only saw a young woman using her iPhone to get the audio guide. Generally speaking, not a large number of visitors choose to get a guide on App. I believed one of the problems was not enough contents on App, compared to the audio guide you rent onsite.


In 2015, the MET did a thorough research on how to improve the audio guide and during the research they did find 40% visitors were foreigners and the importance of reducing the complexity of using audio guide. However, just like what Norman said, “The world is not neat and tidy and things not always work as planned.” All the tour guides provided by MET are roughly satisfied but still have space to improve. Perhaps reconsidering different visitors’ needs could help better the overall experience.


1 Wikipedia: Metropolitan Museum of Art: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art

2 Met Welcomes Nearly 7.4 Million Visitors in 2018:


3 Improving the Audio Guide: A Look at Our Visitors:


4 Norman, D. A. (1998). The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer is So Complex, and Information Appliances are the Solution. MIT Press. Chapter 7: Being Analog http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/being_analog.html.

5 Costanza-Chock, “Design Justice: Towards an Intersectional Feminist Framework for Design Theory and Practice”

Event Review: Museums and AI in the 21st Century

The event taken place at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum on Sep 16, 2019 mainly discussed the applications of Artificial Intelligence now and future and highlighted the role of museums as making people more self-aware. There were three talks in the event given by three different perspectives (a curator, a computer and a future teller) and a free Q & A session afterwards.

Curator: Andrea Lipps, an associate curator of Contemporary Design, Cooper Hewitt

The talk given by a curator from Cooper Hewitt first discussed the impact of AI on our lives right now. As is known to all that AI could be used in different kinds of fields like education, recreation, medical treatment, marketing automation, etc. AI could analyze large amounts of data in a short period of time and help make quick decisions. The benefits of AI are undoubted and visible. However, the curator also pointed out some questions that could not be ignored:

1.How can we ensure diversity, inclusion, safety and human rights are maintained with AI?

2.What role would AI play in our future?

3.How could museum use AI to represent new things?

There is no right or wrong to these questions and we could interpret the questions from different angles. The curator also provided some frameworks that we could use to think about AI:

1.Is it active or passive? If it is active, do you have a choice? If it is passive, is it being disclosed?

2.Is it being linked to a real-world identity or just used as anonymous ID?

3.Which methods being used when connecting AI with museums?

It’s true that we could only predict the influence and applications of AI in the future but what we should pay attention to right now are our own values and priorities. Because the use of AI is designed by human beings and design is just the externalization of our own desire. “If we use, to achieve our purposes, a mechanical agency with whose operation we cannot efficiently interfere once we have started it… we had better be quite sure that the purpose put into the machine is the purpose which we really desire.” Said Norbert Weiner in 1960.

Computer: Harrison Pim, a Data Scientist from Wellcome Trust

The data scientist who represented a computer talked about his work content, that he used machine learning in dealing with loads of images, texts and collections quickly but not analyzing users or visitors, since AI in current period was parasitic on data. He also pointed out that AI was not designed to replace human beings but as tools to be used by people. So, the main point is how to use the tools to better serve people’s needs. The talk given by “the computer” reminded me of what I read in What is Computer Ethics: we are in a conceptional vacuum and policy vacuum world and we need to reexamine the regulations in the past world, from how to define tech-based concepts to create a relatively neutral algorithm. It is impossible to create something absolutely neutral but by creating diversity, the “fundamental vulnerability” could somewhat be relieved.

Creator: Karen Palmer, a storyteller from the future

The future teller first warned everyone that the technology would take over everything and individuals would find themselves lack privacy or security in the near future if we did nothing. We would be derived of the right of telling our own stories and the world was going to be consist of auto-self surveillance, weaponized technology and biased networks.

She used the example of criminal justice system to confirm us that bias would be the biggest problem in AI applications. An example used to support was the UK police using AI to inform custodial decisions which could be discriminating against the poor. Most assumptions made by AI right now were based on false theory while these assumptions are trend to take over our lives. Thus, she concluded that democratizing AI should be what we fight for in the near future.

What she highlighted was the necessary to turn the information age to an age of perception. “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” What museums should do is to make people more self-aware and create more opportunities to arouse citizens’ insights to social issues.

Q & A session

Q: How to apply machine learning in the field of design?

A: To begin with, the interactions between users and products would be changed by new technologies but the role of designers should not be overshadowed by AI. We could use AI to produce products or test prototypes faster. In a word machine learning should serve us but we should not be slaved by it.

Q: What would justice be like in the future and what is the role of machine learning in it?

A: Neither machine learning or artificial intelligence could answer future justice problems. Those concepts should be determined by human beings but not computer technologies. What would happen in the future is the living space AI help to create and people could better understand culture issues in the museums.


Though we have to admit human’s dominant role in the applications of AI, there are other problems about surveillance, power and constraints that could not be ignored. “In an era of extractivism, the real value of that data is controlled and exploited by the very few at the top of the pyramid.” Said Crawford & Joler. The event did not predict how the regulations could be established but just pointed out museums’ future role in arousing people’s awareness, which I think lack enough support and overly optimistic to some extent. Anyway emphasizing museums’ social responsibility is quite necessary right now and all museum practitioners should be prepared for the transformation of exhibition modes.


Norbert Weiner (1960), Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation;https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/2rWfmahhqASnFcYLr/norbert-wiener-s-paper-some-moral-and-technical-consequences

James H. Moor (1985), What is Computer Ethics? 1-2

Tarleton Gillespie (2014), The Relevance of Algorithms, 191; https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Gillespie_2014_The-Relevance-of-Algorithms.pdf

Crawford & Joler (2018), Anatomy of AI system; http://www.anatomyof.ai