When I started to introduce audio tours to the German market more than 25 years ago, many museum professionals in education departments were sceptical: would a pre-recorded comment not be too didactical? It would deliver information and interpretation, yes, but in a far too one-directional way which wouldn’t allow visitors to raise questions and start a conversation. It would provide guidance and orientation in all languages to foreign visitors, yes, but would the invisible narrator really be able to replace the personal guide with his or her smiling, glancing and acting?
Now, hundreds of thousands of audio tours and millions of visitors served cross the globe later, it has become very clear that the intention has never been to replace real people by the audio guide. Instead audio has shown its value in 'stepping in' where staff reach their limits in time, capacity and language. And much more importantly, the incomparable power of the medium has been recognized! Today, we know – based on evidence scientifically proved by extensive research (including a very recent brain-imaging study) that audio goes directly to our heart.
Audio evokes emotions, fosters empathy and thus can bridge the gap between us and the unfamiliar 'other'. When an audio tour is done right, when it combines wonderful storytelling with voices, interviews, archival recordings and music, and maybe even dynamic binaural sound, it augments our reality in a fully immersive way. The encounter with culture is turned into a long-lasting memory.
Nevertheless, it’s still true that a visitor can’t raise a question to an augio guide. This is one of the reasons why multimedia tours appeared, combining great audio with all sorts of interactive functions. They allow visitors to go in depth and explore an art work according to their own personal interests. But asking a question? We have to confess that at Antenna, even though we start all our tours by asking questions - to ourselves, to the artist, to the curator or to our potential listeners in visitor surveys – there is no way to spontaneously express one’s wonder and get an immediate response through an audio guide. Or is there?
Well, IBM Brazil has just launched "The Voice of Art" (A Voz da Arte) project at the Pinacoteca of São Paulo using its IBM Watson artificial intelligence platform to make the visit to the museum a more interactive experience (take a look at the video). Through a mobile application, Watson gives a voice to seven works of art from the Pinacoteca's collection, with technology that is capable of answering questions from visitors. Both IBM and the Pinacoteca’s staff have put months into research and programming to create an audio guide that not only speaks, but also listens to people. Watson’s responses are surprisingly profound, even touching! Do they evoke more questions? Do they lead to a comprehensive narration that remains as a memory in a persons’ mind? Can we formulate a question if there are layers that don’t speak to us in an obvious way? And isn’t this what can excite us about art and inspires us most: that we understand something we had not even thought about before?
Art very often confronts us with the unseen and the unknown. Still, having a question, means that the art touches us, stimulates and intrigues us. Getting an answer means we are then personally connected. If we can find a way to combine this idea with great audio and storytelling, this could be the future of mobile interpretation. And maybe even to reconcile the personal with the profound.
“In such a technological world, museums could not be left behind. The Pinacoteca is always reinventing itself and creating strategies to speak with its audiences. The partnership between Pina and IBM represents this effort, which has resulted in an unprecedented, interactive and accessible action, “said Paulo Vicelli, director of institutional relations at the Pinacoteca of São Paulo.