What can Alexa teach us about the Barnes?

As we continue to work on rapid prototyping of an in-gallery digital experience, we are also toying with existing devices that are at large in the world and seeing what lessons can be learned. At a recent Young Professionals night, we decided to see what would happen if we put Amazon’s Echo in the gallery and invited visitors to use it.

One of the biggest crowds of the evening. The woman pictured here is asking Alexa about birth/death dates of artists which quickly inspired others to ask about impressionism and post-impressionism.

Turns out, Alexa can’t tell us much about the Barnes. Her worldview is limited to the first blurb of a Wikipedia page, so when you ask her “What is the Barnes Foundation?” she responds with “The Barnes Foundation is an American educational art and horticultural institution with locations in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia…” That’s right, Alexa still thinks the Barnes is in Merion because she doesn’t continue to read the rest of that sentence which goes on to give our current location. So, note to self — now our Wikipedia entries need to be both accurate and carefully composed, so that first blurb can stand alone without additional context.

Turns out, Alexa also can’t tell us much about the artists in our collection. While she could easily tell us about Picasso, she couldn’t tell us a thing about Cezanne, Matisse, Rousseau even when visitors tried to help her out with first names — she just couldn’t understand our pronunciation of the French. Comedy started to ensue when she repeatedly tried to tell us that “Matisse” was actually “Métisse, the Irish/African Soul/Electronica band, formed by former Chapterhouse member Skully, and Aïda, a singer/choreographer from Côte d’Ivoire.” Best we could tell, she doesn’t get more intelligent as she goes, so she doesn’t seem to recognize we are at the Barnes (asked repeatedly) and that we have post-impressionist works (asked and answered correctly) and that, therefore, our Matisse was more likely “a French artist, known for both his use of color and his fluid and original draughtsmanship” (not happening). For Alexa, our Matisse would forever be Métisse no matter how closely preceded by what could have been valuable contextual information.

Alexa did show us a few things about visitor behavior in our spaces. This originally began as an experiment to see if “programming” in this way (or any similar way) could bring more people into the collection galleries on a night where most people want to socialize near the event’s bar. The audience for this is young and technically savvy. They want to see and be seen at this event — this group dresses the part — so it felt like a good match.

Turns out this audience — young, professional — had very little awareness of what “Alexa” or the “Amazon Echo” actually was. We handed out tiny Moo cards near the bar that said, “Alexa is waiting to answer your burning questions in Gallery 19.” (In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best way to proposition this programming.) Even with a picture of the device on the card, we were constantly asked what it was.

Very typical pattern; visitors would skirt the perimeter to see without having to engage.

We’d see people enter Gallery 19 with the cards in their hands, so we knew we were the destination, but they got shy very quickly. People — often in pairs or small groups — would circle the gallery at the edges and go into adjacent rooms quickly. For those that did engage, they asked information about movements (impressionism, post-impressionism), life/death dates of artists, artist information. Few tried to ask questions about anything specific about a work of art on view.

Having fun playing music on the “victrola” — the pink sheets on the bench had a list of musicians that Dr. Barnes listened to.

Dr. Barnes was an avid listener of music. Alexa was hooked up to Spotify and our Archives staff provided a list of artists in Dr. Barnes’ victrola collection — including Marian Anderson, Carter Family, Alma Gluck, Rosa Ponselle, Paul Robeson, Jimmie Rodgers, Sea Island Spirituals, Tennessee Mountaineers, Luisa Tetrazzini, Tuskegee Quartet, and Utica Institute Jubilee Singers. People did play music with artist names easily recognized by the device. That was one of the most winning things about the evening because the integrated speaker and Spotify integration meant we could share this aspect of Dr. Barnes easily in any room of the collection. Still, though, in the company of others people were afraid to ask.

In thinking about the learnings of this experience, the most valuable thing for us to see is how our naturally social spaces dimmed quickly in the face of overt public participation. While this may not be true in our public spaces, it seems to be evident inside our galleries. As we design our own experience, that’s a key learning in the direction of what doesn’t work; there is a too far and we hit it.