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

Preserving Counter-Narratives and The Racial Imaginary Institute

The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center
The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center

The lights dim in the Langston Hughes Auditorium within the Schomburg Center located on Malcolm X Boulevard. A short video entitled, “What is the Schomburg Center?” begins to roll and the voice of Shola Lynch, curator of the center’s Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, booms, “it is the place where we come to see who we are. Not just some body’s reflection of who we are.” This is the true theme of center as well as of the evening. We are here to celebrate the launch of The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII) website, a new type of art archive founded by poet and MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine. Rankine and Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks are moderating a discussion between two artists featured in the archive, Alexandra Bell and Hank Willis Thomas. The website is one of the first steps for the institute, which will collaborate with organizations, collectives and spaces to confront the concept of race through, the activation of interdisciplinary work and a democratized exploration” (The Racial Imaginary Institute).

The first web issue focuses on “constructions, deconstructions, and visualizations of/around whiteness, white identity, white rage/fragility/violence, and white dominant structures” (The Racial Imaginary Institute). Whiteness as the first theme was ­­­­­deliberate, investigating white dominance and “America’s commitment to whiteness” says Rankine, is the first step in dismantling racism and the concept of race. The website will collect submissions throughout the year and is capable of hosting all types of media. This will allow for a variety of voices to be heard across artistic disciplines to show different manifestations of lived experience within the dominant structures of whiteness.

'Tulsa Man' by Alexandra Bell
‘Tulsa Man’ by Alexandra Bell

“I don’t think I will ever live in a post-racial society,” says Alexandra Bell. A graduate of Columbia’s Journalism school Bell professes that it mostly, “made [her] a very snobby reader.” She critiques the latent racism within journalism through creating counter-narratives by editing articles from The New York Times, enlarging them tenfold and wheat pasting them in public spaces throughout New York City, predominantly Brooklyn. Her most well-known work is “A Teenager with Promise” a commentary of the inept coverage by the paper over Michael Brown’s murder. Her pieces are diptychs with one panel featuring a redacted and edited copy of the original article noting the language choices that sustain the dominant white narrative; the second panel is her visual representation of the more accurate counter-narrative.

'Absolut Power' by Hank Willis Thomas
‘Absolut Power’ by Hank Willis Thomas

“Race is the most successful advertising campaign of all time,” Hank Willis Thomas tells the audience. Thomas is a conceptual artist whose body of work intersects on ideas of identity, commodity, and pop culture. He believes that “black identity” is fabricated, co-opted and capitalized upon by whiteness. Most known for his series B®anded consisting of manipulated photographs to explore themes of the black body as a commodity from the time of slavery to the present day. One of his most striking pieces is Absolut Power, a play on the Absolut vodka ad campaigns, filling the iconic bottle’s silhouette with the diagram of the Brooke’s slave ship.

“Through archives, the past is controlled[,]” Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook remind us, “[c]ertain stories are privileged and others marginalized” (1). The institution of the archive “represents enormous power over memory and identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks evidence of what its core values are and have been, where it has come from, and where it is going” (Schwartz and Cook 1). These are the exact issues the institute sets out to tackle. Racism is a social construct, it is built upon privilege and power that is either overt or subconcious. When a police officer shoots a black man his defense most often that he was afraid. But afraid of what? White dominance has controlled the narrative surrounding black bodies since we kidnapped them from their homes and enslaved them here on our soil. We have allowed this narrative to continue unchecked actively and passively in all corners of society. In archives specifically, it can be seen in the collection process. It is not uncommon to search records under the “Black History” heading only to find files filled with solely caricature advertising, gruesome accounts of lynching, or similar narratives that place people of color as the victimized other. These narrow collections focus on “Black History” from a controlled white perspective.

As a writer and scholar of African history and diaspora, Arturo Schomburg, for whom the center is dedicated, came up against many who were quick to say that people of color had no history. He went on to amass the largest collection of artifacts and records of black history to preserve the history and culture which society deemed illegitimate. He strove to preserve the range of black experiences, from excellence to exploitation, rather than focusing on the suffering and stereotypes. That to him was not African history it was the history of white dominance and oppression. Because of his legacy ­­­­we have the records that are the literal actual narrative of black experience and not just what white archivist and society have deemed the acceptable history.

The Racial Imaginary Institute seeks to expound upon the ideas of Shomburg by collecting and creating a “deep memory archive” (Brooks) of artistic manifestations of lived experience. It will serve to capture not just our history past, but also our history current. This is a pointed effort to start the conversation now rather than wait for our future historians to interpret the evidence. This is a new way of collecting and disseminating information through active community participation that will circumvent the power still held in the institution of the archive.

The Racial Imaginary Institute
The Racial Imaginary Institute

Works Referenced:“About the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.” Nypl.org, New York Public Library , www.nypl.org/about/locations/schomburg.

Charlton, Lauretta. “Claudia Rankine’s Home for the Racial Imaginary.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/claudia-rankines-home-for-the-racial-imaginary.

Félix, Doreen St. “The.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-radical-edits-of-alexandra-bell.

“HANK WILLIS THOMAS, BRANDED.” Jack Shainman Gallery, Jack Shainman Gallery, www.jackshainman.com/exhibitions/past/2006/thomas/. Artist page.

Rankine, Claudia, Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks, Alexandra Bell, and Hank Willis Thomas. “Artist and the Archive: Deconstructing Racial Imagination at the Schomburg” New York Public Library Schomburg Center. 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York. 26 Sept. 2017. Artist Panel Discussion. https://livestream.com/schomburgcenter/events/7642692/videos/163402668

Schwartz, Joan M, and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science : International Journal on Recorded Information. (2002). Print.

“The Racial Imaginary Institute.” The Racial Imaginary Institute, The Racial Imaginary Institute, theracialimaginary.org/.