Nasher Museum of Art showcases new AI-curated exhibit

A computer might be able to do your homework, but what if it could curate a museum exhibit?

Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art tried to find out, tasking artificial intelligence with curating an art exhibition.

Act as if You are a Curator: An AI-generated Exhibition, an exhibition at the Nasher running until the end of the semester, was proposed as a joke but turned into reality after the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies built a tool to pull information from the Nasher’s publicly available database and transcribed the 14,000 pieces to make the data machine-readable by OpenAI’s ChatGPT program. 

Using the Nasher algorithm, ChatGPT suggested themes of utopias, dystopias, the subconscious and dreams, and then determined which artifacts best reflected these themes for the exhibit. 

Julia McHugh, the director of academic initiatives and curator of arts in the Americas at the Nasher, said that the Nasher hoped the exhibition would help connect with what Duke students are learning in their classes. 

McHugh also saw it as a tool to aid the curators in improving certain aspects of the curation process. 

“Because of the number of real limitations with AI in the museum space, I think we really saw this as perhaps a curatorial tool, not a curatorial substitute or not a substitute for a human curator,” McHugh said.

ChatGPT was found to not have the full capabilities of a human curator because it is not able to see and analyze pieces for itself, but instead uses textual information as a basis for picking and describing the art in its exhibit. According to McHugh, this is why using AI is not an easy solution to curation, emphasizing that even with AI, the process of curating the exhibit still needed human collaboration.

“[ChatGPT] wasn't able to access the visuals in a way that curators or visitors are… And I'll have to say it forced us to work in a very different way curatorially. It was a lot of work and a lot of work on the part of humans,” McHugh said. “It required a lot of critical thinking on our part too about how we were going to present this material.” 

Julianne Miao, a curatorial assistant at the Nasher Museum, works with the curators in bringing exhibits to life and manages communications around curatorial projects. Miao found the use of AI as an opportunity for collaboration along with teaching and learning, instead of a threat to the curation process.

“[Artificial intelligence] was a tool that I think a lot of art institutions and higher education, in a lot of ways, are fearful of how this technology can develop in these spaces. But we were eager to test that and see truly what its limitations and capabilities were,” Miao said. 

While ChatGPT was able to lead the curation process, Miao and McHugh found many mistakes in its analysis and descriptions of individual pieces. 

“We realized there was a lot of opportunity for curatorial input to talk about the ways that ChatGPT did something that's different from how a human curator would do it,” Miao stated. 

Miao used the example of the generated description of one of Dorothy Dehner’s paintings to reflect how inaccurate ChatGPT could be. ChatGPT identified the painting as a sculpture instead of a painting, because Dehner was more well-known as a sculptor.

McHugh explains that the exhibition is placed in the Incubator Gallery where the Nasher highlights student and faculty work or exhibits that display curatorial risk-taking. This AI-generated exhibition combines both of these elements. 

Sophomore Alveena Nadeem worked with the Nasher team on this project. When the group started coming up with ideas for the exhibit, she said that their goal was to make the exhibit more interactive.

After months of algorithm development and data scraping, they were finally able to get AI to accept and analyze the data, even while it continued to make mistakes like suggesting that the Nasher display works of art that are not part of its collections.

Nadeem had never explored ChatGPT before this project, but it helped her learn how AI works and changed her notions about its uses. 

“What's happening is that we're making this weapon that is really exactly going to do what you tell it to and what information you give it. And it can be extremely powerful and useful,” Nadeem said. “I think that a lot of algorithms can be used for good, to ease life and to increase connectivity.”


Aseel Ibrahim | Associate News Editor

Aseel Ibrahim is a Trinity first-year and an associate news editor for the news department.       

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