AI, holograms help museums tackle Holocaust, slavery
Museums that focus on racial violence and antisemitism have begun using holograms, artificial intelligence and virtual reality to allow visitors to have simulated "conversations" with Holocaust survivors and hear the words of enslaved people.
Why it matters: The use of technology such as generative AI to create immersive displays is aimed at fighting bigotry — and comes amid rising concern that AI also can fuel racism by amplifying bias from human-generated content on the internet.
Zoom in: The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, Ill., and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Ala., are among the institutions aggressively deploying new technology to vividly tell harrowing aspects of history.
How it works: At the Illinois museum, holograms of actual Holocaust survivors and witnesses can respond to questions from visitors.
- A museum employee feeds the questions into a computer, which then uses a tailored AI system that develops an answer, generates audio sounding like the survivor's voice, and creates a video of them image "speaking."
- The holograms can answer questions ranging from whether they believe in God to what they think about genocide, said Kelley Szany, the museum's senior VP of education and exhibitions.
- If a visitor asks a question the system can't answer, it might have the hologram acknowledge that it doesn't know — but then eventually it "learns" an answer after gathering more information from the cloud.
- "The system gets smarter with each question," Szany said. "If they might not have an answer at the moment, they're going to find it."
Alabama's Legacy Museum — located on a site where enslaved people once were sold — takes a different approach.
- It features holograms of actors portraying enslaved people, using their words from saved writings or testimonies in oral histories.
- The holograms are activated when visitors get close to a reconstructed holding cell.
- The holograms sing, ask for missing children or describe the horrors of captivity. They don't respond to questions.
What they're saying: "The concept is to get closer to history, get closer to the people, get closer to the stories, get closer to the experience," said Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI runs the Legacy Museum.
- Stevenson said the museum plans to open a site later this year to engage people with some of the "artifactual aspects of enslavement" through technology.
- "(The) technology transports the viewer, or the individual, into that kind of power of place, of presence to the sites where these atrocities occurred," Szany said. "It's a different level of understanding."
Also: The Greenwood Rising History Center, a museum that tells the story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, uses holographic barbers in a re-created period barbershop.
- The holographic barbers mimic cutting hair while a visitor sits in a period barber chair as the holograms talk about the politics of the day and racism in Tulsa.
- In the middle of the "haircut," smoke appears in the room to give a feeling to the visitor about the riot outside, where the exhibit about the massacre continues.
What's next: The Illinois museum just launched three new VR films, which will screen through October.
- One of them, "Letters from Drancy," is making its world debut at the Venice International Film Festival.
- The films used computational GPS and AI to superimpose historic photos on present-day VR footage as survivors tell their stories.