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Museums as “hyperinstitutions”

The technological advances of our time and the rapidly accelerating development of artificial intelligence should have the undivided attention of the museum world. The potential is enormous, and “the future is already here,” writes Henrik Lübker, director of Design Denmark, and Matias K. Seidler, partner at Danish virtual reality company, Khora.

In collaboration with the National Museum of Denmark’s researchers and archaeologists, Khora (based in Copenhagen), has brought the Egtved Girl to life as a talking, hyperrealistic digital avatar.

The example shows how new technology can create living encounters with our cultural heritage in physical and online spaces.

The Egtved Girl was created using MetaHuman – a piece of software that makes it easier and faster to develop human-like characters using 3D. Before MetaHuman, it took 10 times the resource to produce lifelike humans in 3D.

Today, even small companies – with the right expertise – can work with cultural institutions to bring historically significant figures to life. This requires close collaboration between tech companies and cultural communicators, and researchers.

The National Museum’s reconstruction of the Egtved Girl

However, MetaHuman is just the tip of the technological iceberg. In 2022, we saw many wildly accelerating trends, all of which hold enormous potential for driving transformative and meaningful changes in the way we think about, design and produce culture.

We saw artificial intelligence conversing, cutting movies, painting pictures, programming games and writing articles of astonishingly high quality and with little human input. Does that seem scary?

Agencies and consultancies have been screaming “disruption” for years. Historically, we have not seen technologically-induced mass unemployment, but relatively greater mobility and the liberation of people from repetitive, automatable work into creative work and thinking.

Therefore, we believe that change and potential will not decenter humans from the creative processes but rather become a driver for more inclusive and human cultural institutions.

Museums as hyperinstitutions

Technological developments will expose and incorporate a human truth that has always been there. But with new technology our cultural institutions will now be able to fully unfold in their dissemination products. The truth is that users are never passive recipients but always active creators.

As the philosopher Jacques Ranciére has pointed out in his book ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, among others, the recipients are always creators because they observe, compare, select and interpret what they encounter by comparing it with their interior and their own past. They are constantly creating new poems based on all the other poems they experience around them. Against this background, we find it meaningful to use the museum as a case and imagine the world in 10 years.

Dissolving Boundaries

Looking ten years into the future, we expect to see the first examples of what we call cultural “hyperinstitutions”. A hyperinstitution is a term used to describe organisations that exist primarily or exclusively in a digital format. They are hybrid and characterised by being collections of network structures and relationships. These organisations may have a physical presence, but their primary activities and interactions occur online – or somewhere between the physical and online.

This means that they no longer have the spatial, organisational and content boundaries that have characterised institutions in the past. New technologies and algorithms, such as OpenAIs, XR and the metaverse, are dissolving the digital and the physical divide.

Another huge win is that an aestheticised design process makes collaboration and co-creation with content providers cheaper and more agile.

The population has stopped distinguishing between the digital as a mediation of the physical and is instead learning to appreciate the ability to weave effortlessly in and out of immersive and hybrid formats. At the same time, they expect their interests and engagements to be reflected in the institution’s mediation offer.

For the hyperinstitution, it is natural to exist in many spaces at once, between past and present – as in the example of the Egtved Girl. It is also natural to exist between people and technology, between cultural producers and cultural users, and between research and dissemination.

The hyperinstitution transcends and complements the classic spaces of mediation. It appears and has a presence in the spaces between, outside the building, between buildings, in urban spaces, and online. The new institution dissolves boundaries, breaks down walls and creates new contexts and relationships. It produces and publishes virtual, hybrid and physical experiences carried and nurtured by a diverse community. A new type of user who – whether their visit is virtual, physical or product-based – understands themselves as visitor producers and as creators.

Technology as a co-creator

In 2033, the majority of museum collections and knowledge will not be in the dark, hidden behind institutional walls. With the help of artificial intelligence, such as further developments of OpenAI’s Chat-GPT, human-like interfaces will provide open access to the vast amounts of data, objects and knowledge from our cultural heritage.

At the same time, technological helpers will be co-creative sparring partners, pointing out contexts you would not usually be aware of or be able to access.

Before, institutional filters and curatorial preferences created categorisations and biases that shaped access to the material. Now, institutional knowledge and data have been opened up wide and have become co-creation processes, where the user, together with the technology, thinks with data rather than about data. This is happening because it is becoming much easier to explore connections across data sets, something humans excel at, while at the same time technology is providing surprising links and perspectives.

In this way, the archive and collection is not so much a container full of information for the user to find but instead has potential for a creative exploration, as the data held within the collection and archive can be assembled into new meanings for the individual. The focus shifts from information to knowledge production; from static data to context-sensitive relationships; from institutional ownership to shared ownership with users, where users put knowledge actively into play in their lives.

From classical cultural institutions to research and dissemination laboratories

What was the driving force behind the transformation of institutions into hyperinstitutions? Shared ownership!

Indeed, new AI technologies make large parts of the design and development processes faster, more sensory and inclusive. Research into user behaviour, interests and trends become rapidly accessible processes for laymen and experts alike. So too do experimental deep dives into archives and collections, and mapping of the patterns and desires of the existing user base. It is thus anchored across the organisation’s various disciplines, just as users are involved in the actual development work.

In other words, the entry level to be a part of development processes is lowered, and the door is widened. With text and visualisation technologies such as Chat-GPT, Midjourney and DALL-E 2, anyone can experiment, turning the classic post-it notes of the design process into articles and descriptions into images at lightning speed.

We will see users’ consumption of communication products transformed into direct participation in future initiatives’ direction, style and content.

Visual and narrative mock-ups and mood boards can be created in real-time. This opens up an aestheticisation of the design process much closer to a final expression in form and format. The feedback loop between intention and expression is accelerated. These are reasons why AI-assisted design and development enables more significant alignment between stakeholders. It allows the cultural producer and core audience to co-create in an aestheticised, sensory space. Ultimately, the hyperinstitution will appear as an open and transparent research and dissemination laboratory – rather than a classical walled-in, closed-off institution.

In concrete terms, this means that all phases of the hyperinstitution’s development processes become so accessible that they can also be thought of as dissemination products. This is because they contain negotiations about how the cultural heritage becomes meaningful for the individual. The mediation meeting is thus no longer an end product of a development process but something that happens continuously in the process itself. Experimental new research and dissemination become two sides of the same coin.

Living meetings – adapted to the individual

The future of communication is dynamic. It follows users across platforms and curates content for the individual. “Morning News” is the institution’s curated look at the world, “Podcasts” with experts and researchers going in-depth on the topics that most captivate listeners – “Backstage”, where researchers and curators put small bits of knowledge out to interested parties, and much, much more.

Together, they form a network of dissemination in different subject areas, targeted at the needs and wishes of users. At the same time, a wide range of partnerships with cultural and commercial actors will create new mediation spaces and contact interfaces with new target groups.

And then there are the three main attractions.

  • The Dissemination Laboratory, where draft exhibitions are displayed and debated and visitors can use their membership tokens to vote on which part of our shared cultural heritage to produce.
  • The exhibition, a mix of living installations, exhibition mediation and immersive sensory experiences, makes connections across time and space, being and beingness. Where atmosphere and mood change from visit to visit, responding to the visitor according to the profile the institution has created on the visitor and through the visitor’s interaction with the exhibition.
  • Digital reality filters allow the visitor to explore site-specific transformations of landscape and city through their smart device.

Museum Club 2.0

All of these new and renewed dissemination platforms not only extend the institution’s reach but also form new dissemination spaces that are neither uniquely digital nor analogue.

They are the spaces created by each user’s movement through and use of the hyperinstitution’s various dissemination products. In this way, the user becomes his or her self-made curator through interaction with the various mediation products made available by the hyperinstitution.

Such a “third space” creates opportunities to develop targeted member services that support users’ active engagement with history and are based directly on their engagement with history.

In the hyperinstitution, the museum will provide different member services that activate particular narratives or digital layers in line with the user’s interests. We will see users’ consumption of dissemination products transformed into direct co-influence on future initiatives’ direction, style and content. Their participation will be gamified – for example, in the form of digitised storytelling that guests can collect and activate at home, and much more.

The future is here

Does the hyperinstitution sound like a dream, a nightmare, or something too far-fetched?

We are convinced that the cultural institution of the future will have to fight to make itself visible in a market overflowing with content. Technology will only accelerate this. But at the same time, technology creates new opportunities for relevance and powerful sensory encounters with our shared past. The winners will be those who can creatively translate the many possibilities and integrate them into how institutions create meetings with users.

So the call is this:

Give it a go. Put the coffee on, open the Chat-GPT, and ask away. Draw up the outlines of a GPT3-assisted working day and ask yourselves: “What can GPT-3 and DALL-E 2 contribute to exhibition design, concept development and new forms of dissemination with co-creation at its core? ”

The future is already here. Make use of it!

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