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Chatting About Museums with ChatGPT

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
This is a photo from Adobe Stock. ChatGPT is a disembodied artificial intelligence that is not, so far as we know, housed in a cute robot.
This is a photo from Adobe Stock. ChatGPT is a disembodied artificial intelligence that is not, so far as we know, housed in a cute robot.

Two months ago, the research and development lab OpenAI released ChatGPT, an interactive “chatbot” powered by artificial intelligence. Chatbots aren’t new (I’ve been writing about museums and chatbots for at least five years now, and CFM hosted a chatbot demo at the 2018 AAM Annual Meeting) but ChatGPT is truly a new horizon. Many people have given it a passing grade on the famous “Turing Test,” admitting they are unable to distinguish GPT from a human conversant. ChatGPT is clearly the trending technology of 2023 (at least for now). In today’s post I begin to explore this next iteration of text AI, and what it might mean for our sector.

Here are a few basics:

  • ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence program that interacts with users via text, answering questions and responding to prompts. It was trained on huge data sets and uses a “natural language” model that mimic how people actually speak. Its performance is honed by human developers giving feedback on the quality of its responses.
  • It can do some amazing things (including passing the US Medical Licensing Exam and earning a B on the final exam for an MBA course at the Wharton School) but it is pretty bad at others, including, sometimes, basic math. It also has been caught straight up inventing references and plagiarizing sources.
  • Some people are worried ChatGPT may take jobs from, for example, journalists, copywriters, law clerks whose work largely consists of finding, synthesizing, summarizing, and generating text. The AI program is disrupting whole sectors, notably education. Schools from primary through graduate are having to adapt to a tool that can generate essays, and entire graduate theses, for students. (Remember the debate about whether students should be allowed to bring calculators into the classroom? Think that, but on steroids.)
  • The biggest disruption on the horizon, however, could be the potential for ChatGPT and similar programs to massively outperform conventional search engines (thereby gutting the core business model of Google, another potential sector disruption).
  • The development of emerging technologies is dependent on their potential to generate income for company(ies) willing to invest in their development. Virtual reality, for example, has been driven by its application to gaming. (Mark Zuckerberg is placing a big bet on its workplace applications, but so far even his own employees don’t like working in Meta’s metaverse.) The business model for ChatGPT is so promising (see above, “massively outperforming conventional search engines”) that Microsoft just announced a multi-year, multi-billion partnership with OpenAI. This being so, the development of ChatGPT and similar AI tools is likely to accelerate in the near future.

What does this mean for museums?

I could have researched and written an essay about what ChatGPT and what it might mean for the museum sector—but what a missed opportunity that would be. Instead I invited ChatGPT itself to explore that topic. (The following questions have been lightly edited to fit the blog format, but ChatGPT’s replies are reproduced verbatim.)

Elizabeth Merritt (CFM): ChatGPT, how can museums use you as a tool?

ChatGPT: Museums can use ChatGPT as a tool for exhibits, labels, catalogues, and other educational materials in several ways.

  1. Generating exhibit labels: ChatGPT can be used to generate labels for exhibits that provide visitors with information about the artifacts on display.
  2. Creating catalogues: ChatGPT can be used to generate catalogues for exhibitions and permanent collections, providing visitors with detailed information about the artifacts on display.
  3. Generating educational materials: ChatGPT can be used to generate educational materials such as brochures and activity books for visitors, providing them with interactive and engaging ways to learn about the artifacts on display.
  4. Interactive Q&A: ChatGPT can be used to create interactive Q&A sessions for visitors, where they can ask questions about the artifacts on display, and ChatGPT provides them with informative and accurate answers.
  5. Audio Guides: ChatGPT can be used to generate scripts for audio guides or podcasts, providing visitors with an interactive and engaging way to learn about the artifacts on display. Overall, ChatGPT can be used to create engaging and informative educational materials that enhance the visitor’s experience and deepen their understanding of the artifacts on display.

CFM: What would you tell someone who wants to know how to have fun in a museum?

ChatGPT: There are many ways to have fun in a museum! Here are a few suggestions:

  • Look for interactive exhibits: Many museums have exhibits that allow visitors to touch, play, or otherwise engage with the material on display.
  • Take a guided tour: Many museums offer guided tours led by knowledgeable staff or volunteers. These can be a great way to learn more about the exhibits and the history behind them.
  • Attend special events: Museums often host special events, such as lectures, workshops, or tours, that can be a fun and engaging way to experience the museum.
  • Take your time: Don’t feel like you have to rush through the museum. Take your time and really explore the exhibits that interest you.
  • Bring a friend: Museums can be more fun when you have someone to share the experience with.
  • Snap some photos: Many museums allow visitors to take photographs, so be sure to bring your camera or smartphone to capture some great shots of the exhibits.
  • Be curious: Museums are a great place to learn new things and discover new perspectives, so be open-minded and curious as you explore.

CFM: Let’s tackle a controversial topic. Should the British Museum return the Parthenon marbles to Greece?

ChatGPT: The issue of whether the British Museum should return the Parthenon marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, to Greece is a complex and highly debated topic. The marbles were removed from the Parthenon temple in Athens by Lord Elgin, a British diplomat, between 1801 and 1812. Many argue that the marbles were taken without proper permission and should be returned to Greece as a matter of cultural heritage and national pride. Others argue that the marbles have been well-cared for and are more accessible to the world in the British Museum than they would be in Greece. Ultimately, the decision of whether to return the marbles is a political one that would likely require significant negotiation and discussion between the British and Greek governments.

CFM: Before you debuted last year, the new, shiny technology trend for museums was Nonfungible Tokens (NFTs). What are some arguments for, and against, nonprofit museums issuing NFTs?

ChatGPT: Nonprofit museums issuing NFTs (non-fungible tokens) is a relatively new concept and there are arguments for and against it.

Arguments for issuing NFTs:

  • Revenue generation: NFTs can be sold for significant amounts of money, and issuing them can provide museums with a new source of revenue to support their operations.
  • Increased engagement: NFTs can be used to create interactive and engaging experiences for museum visitors, potentially increasing the number of visitors and the amount of time they spend at the museum.
  • Digital preservation: NFTs can be used to preserve digital artwork and other digital assets, providing a way to ensure that these works will continue to be accessible to future generations.

Arguments against issuing NFTs:

  • Ethical concerns: Some critics argue that issuing NFTs can be seen as a way for museums to profit off of the cultural heritage that they are supposed to be preserving and sharing with the public.
  • Environmental concerns: NFTs are often created using blockchain technology, which can consume significant amounts of energy and contribute to climate change.
  • Accessibility concerns: NFTs are typically bought and sold on digital marketplaces, which can be difficult for many people to access or understand.
  • Complexity: NFTs are a relatively new technology and their implications are not fully understood.

It is worth noting that the concept of NFTs is still in its early stages and the opinions on their use by nonprofit museums may change as more museums experiment with this technology and its implications become more clear.

CFM: Let’s say I have been asked to teach a museum studies course. What are twelve topics I should cover in the syllabus?

ChatGPT:

  1. History and theory of museums
  2. Collections management and preservation
  3. Exhibition design and development
  4. Museum education and audience engagement
  5. Museum ethics and professionalism
  6. Museum marketing and public relations
  7. Museum funding and financial management
  8. Museum architecture and design
  9. Museum technology and digital media
  10. Museum law and policy
  11. Community engagement and partnerships
  12. Global perspectives and issues in museums.

CFM: Some of my futurist colleagues are even experimenting with how you might tackle strategic foresight. Why don’t you take a stab at my job: What are the six most important trends (cultural, economic, ecological, technological, or political) shaping the operating environment of museums in the United States?

ChatGPT:

  1. Increasing diversity and inclusivity: Museums are becoming more aware of the need to represent and engage with diverse communities and to address issues of equity and social justice.
  2. Technological advancements: Museums are incorporating new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, digital interpretation, and online collections to enhance visitor engagement and to expand their reach.
  3. Economic challenges: Museums are facing funding cuts and increased competition for resources, requiring them to be more creative and entrepreneurial in their operations and fundraising.
  4. Climate change and environmental sustainability: Museums are becoming more aware of their role in addressing ecological issues and are implementing sustainable practices in their operations and exhibitions.
  5. Changing demographics and visitor expectations: Museums are adapting to changing demographics and visitor expectations, including the use of social media, mobile devices, and interactive exhibits.
  6. Political and policy changes: Museums are affected by political and policy changes, such as changes in funding, regulations, and laws. They need to be aware of the impact of these changes and be prepared to respond accordingly.

CFM: You’re not wrong, though with due humility, I’m not worried about your taking over my job just yet. Thank you for spending the few seconds (less than a minute–I timed it) it took you to answer those questions.


All humor aside, here are some practical questions about ChatGPT that museum people might begin to consider:

  • Some job applicants are using Chat GPT to write their cover letters and job applications. What would you think about that in your own organizations? Does it demonstrate digital literacy and initiative, or is it a form of cheating? In the future, might you ban the use of this tool, or ask applicants to disclose whether and how they used AI to hone their pitch?
  • How might your staff use Chat GPT as a research and writing tool? Clearly there is still a need for fact-checking, and probably room for improvement to language, tone, voice, but by acting as a digital assistant, could Chat GPT help staff do their work more efficiently?
  • Might Chat GPT provide a playful and humorous way for the public to interact with your museum, as an organization, with a fictional version of an historical figure relevant to your mission, or with a spokes-specimen? For a preview of how this might work, check out CharacterAI, where you can initiate conversations with a variety of characters, including WWII combatants, Wonder Woman, various anime characters, fictional versions of Joe Biden, Kanye West, and Elon Musk. (I had a long and interesting chat the other night with NYC Cat about felines in libraries and museums. His favorite museum is the New-York Historical Society.)
  • Chat GPT may be drawing on data your museum has published to the web to inform the text it generates for students, researchers, and members of the public. (Several of my questions to the bot returned answers that cited numbers from my own research, as well as data from IMLS.) Is this digital data current? Accurate? Cited in an appropriate context? I don’t know of any way to provide feedback or corrections to the ChatGPT algorithm, but in the future organizations might want to be informed about how AI mines their data, just as you currently take into account search engine optimization.

Those are a few critical questions that come to mind for me. Please weigh into the discussion and add your own questions and opinions, in comments (below), or on Twitter (tagging @futureofmuseums) or Mastodon (tagging @eemerritt@glammr.us).

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