Augmented Reality and Friendly Chatbots: Grants to Digitize the Museum Experience

the Detroit Institute of Arts will use knight funds to expand an augmented reality pilot to allow visitors to explore the creation and symbolism behind Diego Rivera’s famed murals.

the Detroit Institute of Arts will use knight funds to expand an augmented reality pilot to allow visitors to explore the creation and symbolism behind Diego Rivera’s famed murals.

Before Alberto Ibargüen became head of the Knight Foundation, he was publisher of the Miami Herald, where he had a front row seat to the traumatic disruption of the newspaper business by the internet. When we profiled Ibargüen last year, he explained how that experience informed Knight's grantmaking to support media innovation. For more than a decade now, Knight has been on a quest to help journalism harness new technology to thrive—as opposed to being destroyed by it. 

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Knight has also supported innovation in the arts, which the foundation sees as an all-important glue in community life. "People bond to a place because of culture," Ibargüen told us last year. But the arts have famously struggled in a distracted age when people can barely put down their phones, much less listen to an entire symphony. Since 2008, Knight has sought to encourage new ideas and thinking around the arts through its Knight Arts Challenge.

Now it's putting up resources specifically to ensure that museums thrive in an era of technological disruption. Recently, the foundation awarded $1.87 million to 12 art museums as part of an initiative to help institutions experiment with "new ways of using digital tools to improve the visitor experience."

Echoing his views on how the media must adapt to new times, Ibargüen said about this museum funding: “We support arts institutions that are willing to lead and seize the opportunities tech offers to engage visitors, patrons and audiences.”

Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation vice president for the arts, framed the new grants more broadly: "Museums need to continually make organizational, cultural shifts to adapt to the way people live. Knight can help them speed the process and provide the seed capital that encourages them to take risks. We believe museums are and can continue to be an essential part of community life."

While each of the 12 funded projects is tailored to the individual city and the museum’s collection, Knight hopes the successful ideas will be replicable and customized by other museums needing turnkey solutions. Recipient museums will use a range of tools including chatbots, augmented reality apps and leading-edge digital projection to attract and engage new audiences. According to Knight, museums will introduce people to "important context in an interactive manner and, in some cases, virtually surround visitors in the place and time the art was created, bringing the gallery experience to new levels."

Knight's investment suggests that the digitized museum experience has come a long way since 2014, when Bloomberg Philanthropies made $17 million in grants through its rebranded Bloomberg Connects initiative to expand its support for digital engagement by museums. Available tools have become more complex, immersive, and better attuned for engagement. 

RelatedWill Mobile Apps Really Improve Museums? Bloomberg Thinks So.

Prior to writing this piece, I re-read Inside Philanthropy's 2014 take on Bloomberg Connects. While the piece is less than three years old, sentences like "This app will allow visitors to build their own personalized museum tours and share their favorite exhibits on social media" seem quaint in hindsight. Now we're talking about sci-fi concept like "augmented reality pilots" and "friendly chatbots."

Of course, the Bloomberg Connects initiative has since evolved. We should emphasize that Bloomberg Philanthropies remains the biggest and most enduring funder of tech innovation by museums, with a history here that goes back to 1999, when Bloomberg money supported the introduction of audio guides in museums.

In total, Bloomberg Philanthropies says it's now given $96 million to "support the development of technology that transforms the visitor experience at 15 cultural institutions around the world." This includes support for "innovative immersive galleries, location-aware navigational tools, and customized experiences that allow visitors to connect with experts, become designers and engage with the arts in a whole new way." (In this video, you can see what the Tate Modern is doing with funding through Bloomberg Connects.)