A digital renaissance is helping global audiences connect with art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses over 1.5 million works of art spanning 5,000 years. Now, The Met is exploring artificial intelligence to make its collection accessible to the 3.9 billion internet-connected people worldwide.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art launched their Open Access platform in 2017, making all images and data relating to public-domain artworks in its vast collection available to everyone online. The Met’s Open Access Program seeks to make the museum’s collection one of the most accessible, discoverable, and useful on the internet. Now, The Met is collaborating with Microsoft to take this initiative to the next level, utilizing artificial intelligence to help audiences better discover these artworks and develop meaningful connections with them.
As one of the world’s largest art museums, The Met houses over 1.5 million works of art with over 7 million physical visitors each year. In order to expand this reach to the internet-connected audience of 3.9 billion people worldwide, the museum must take on the herculean task of digitizing, classifying and tagging each work of art in a scalable way.
The classifying and tagging process is complex and labor intensive. What makes this process so complex? Art is inherently highly unstructured. Unlike with a document, there’s no easy way to lift information. Instead, the visual elements need to be perceived, from the media and technique to the choice of color palette and subject. There’s also a vivid story behind each piece: the artist’s history, influences, and style. In the past, gathering all this information had to be done manually for each piece—a painstaking process, particularly when it involves millions of works of art.
“For our Open Access collection, we hired a team of people to examine each image and tag what they saw,” says Jennie Choi, General Manager of Collection Information at The Met. “However, this is very labor-intensive and requires careful inspection of each piece.”
That’s why The Met is now exploring artificial intelligence to simplify and scale this process. In particular, the museum has worked on a proof of concept called, Art Explorer, which uses Microsoft’s Cognitive Search to examine each artwork and automatically generate all the information needed to tag and classify the piece in a fraction of the time. (The Art Explorer project was able to process hundreds of thousands of artworks this way in a single night.)
But there’s much more to the process than speed. When a digital image is loaded into Art Explorer, Cognitive Search also surfaces what objects are depicted in the piece, what other artworks in the collection are visually similar, and what relevant information (geography, artist’s history, etc.) it should pull in from the web.
This data is then organized into a searchable index that unlocks insights, uncovers relationships between pieces in the collection, and grows the knowledge base around each piece online. As people navigate the Open Access collection, they can search for oil paintings or line drawings or all works of art depicting certain animals. In other words, they can find what interests or inspires them in ways that were never possible before.
- Maria Kessler, Senior Program Manager for Digital Partnerships, The MetWe’re in the midst of a renaissance right now, with AI bringing art and science together in a way that will enable online visitors to develop a deeper and more personally relevant connection to art.
Art Explorer is just one of the many ways The Met is experimenting with artificial intelligence. Earlier this year, they collaborated with Microsoft and MIT to host a hackathon encouraging developers to use AI to rethink the museum experience. Learn more about the exciting projects created to help audiences discover The Met’s Open collection.
“Through AI, we can see things that we couldn’t see before with the naked eye,” says Maria Kessler, Senior Program Manager for Digital Partnerships at The Met. “There are patterns—there’s information that’s discoverable in the art, behind the art, and connecting the art from one piece to another.”
And this has big implications for museums overall. Instead of observing static works of art one-by-one, viewers will be able to dynamically curate their experience based on their unique interests. Understanding the innovative ways to harness AI, The Met is poised to create meaningful new ways people connect to art.