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Museum Chatbots: is 24/7 museum service the way forward?

We’re living through a technological revolution, and this could mean big changes to museum services

Technology has transformed the way we interact with the world around us. Whether we’re shopping online or streaming content through our smartphones, the past two decades have seen a change like nothing humans have ever experienced before. And if this rapid innovation weren’t taking place quickly enough, the Coronavirus pandemic has given institutions and organisations around the globe a shot in the arm that has made digitisation a necessity rather than a choice.

One of the most exciting and controversial aspects of technological advancement is undoubtedly artificial intelligence.

50 years ago, the concept of AI would have been unthinkable, almost alien. Objects thinking for themselves, and replicating human behaviour? It was kind of content reserved for science fiction movies.

But nowadays, AI is fast becoming ingrained in the processes, software and systems that run many parts of our daily lives. From helpdesks to How-To guides, the way we communicate with technology is changing.

But what happens when this technology enters the long-established infrastructure of the museum space? A prime example of this is the chatbot.

What are chatbots?

Through the use of machine learning and natural language processing, chatbots can be programmed to simulate human conversation and exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to that of a human. They communicate through speech or text, or a combination of both, and can read, analyse and interpret human language.

More and more businesses are using chatbots as part of their services – saving on human resource and keeping costs down in the process. According to Acquire, around 1.4 billion people are now using chatbots around the world, whether to shop or seek support from a brand. 67% of customers have used chatbots in the past year, and in 2018 alone interest in chatbots increased by upwards of 160%.

Even if you don’t think you’ve used chatbots before, chances are you have. There are essentially two main kinds of chatbot: messaging apps used by customers for quick answers to queries, and voice-based virtual assistants. This includes the likes of Alexa, Google Hub and Siri, all of which have become increasingly popular in recent years.

The pros and cons of chatbots in museums

So what does all this have to do with museums? Is it possible for museums to deploy chatbots as part of their customer experience?

Even in their simplest forms, chatbots can be used to provide more information, something many museum visitors welcome. At the National Art Museum in Belarus, chatbots are used simply yet effectively. Through Facebook Messenger, visitors can ask the bot to provide more information on an item they are looking at.

But bots can go further than this. At the Heinz Nixdorf Museums Forum, a conversational agent called Max was introduced. But Max was not a real person; he was a bot, designed to engage with visitors through a screen. In this way, chat bots can be used to created a mascot of sorts for museums — a seemingly real helper ready to ask questions and enhance the customer experience.
One of the main benefits of chatbots is the 24/7 service they provide.

According to Drift, 64% of internet users say that 24-hour service is the best feature of chatbots. Bots are designed to replace human interaction, but rather to filter the tasks and queries that can be handled easily, leaving more time for real team members to work on more complex concerns and passion projects.

However, chatbots aren’t perfect. Although they can provide faster customer service, they often work from a limited database, so their complexity is restricted. The success of chatbots depends on how they are implemented within a business or institution.

Cooper Hewitt Museum

There are many examples of chatbots being put to effective and imaginative use in museum spaces, and one of the earliest comes from the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. Considered by some to be a pioneer of chatbot technologies in cultural spaces, the Cooper Hewitt Museum created the Object Phone back in 2013.

This was a service powered by Twillio – a communication service specialising in SMS, video and voice AI technologies. As the name suggests, the Object Phone allowed visitors to text or call to ask for more information on a museum object.

By 2016, the Object Phone had become a subscription service that offered visitors daily updates on museum collections. Now, you can ask more complex questions directly to the chatbot behind the service, and these questions may be forwarded to a dedicated museum Slack channel where museum staff can reply, channelling their answers back through the chatbots.

Anne Frank’s House

Anne Frank’s House is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and sensitive cultural sites in the world, evoking curiosity and intense emotional responses in visitors. So any attempt to integrate chatbot technology into the museum had to be done carefully and with great sensitivity.

This was achieved in 2017 when, on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the museum launched a Facebook Messenger bot to provide both information on the site and information on Anne Frank herself and the wider impact of World War II. The museum described the bot as a way to extend the physical museum to the wider world, providing valuable information that’s as engaging as it is important.

Developed in partnership with Facebook, the bot learns to understand consumer intent over time, providing accurate 1-on-1 content, information and engagement.

The House Museums of Milan

In some cases, chatbots are combined with other innovative technologies to create a unique visitor experience. This was the case with the House Museums of Milan – a group of four historical homes in Milan. When the team created an itinerary to encourage people to visit all four homes, they decided to introduce gamification alongside it to attract a younger audience.

This resulted in a chatbot game, delivered through Facebook Messenger. The bot invites younger visitors to explore the four houses and find hidden clues in order to solve a real historical mystery.

Final Thoughts

Like all technology, the success of chatbots in museums depends on how the technology is applied. When used to enhance rather than replace the authentic visitor experience, chatbots can be a useful and innovative tool to help boost engagement, provide information and expedite basic processes. The key, of course, is that technology is utilised intelligently and is never allowed to chip away at the user experience, which must always remain personal and, well, human.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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