Computational Museology


Sarah Kenderdine is a leading researcher on interactive and immersive experiences in galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Her widely exhibited installations combine tangible and intangible cultural heritage with new media art practice, particularly in the areas of interactive cinema, augmented reality and non-linear storytelling. Sarah has designed 90 exhibitions and installations for museums worldwide, in 2017 she was appointed Professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, where Sarah founded the Laboratory of Experimental Museology (eM+), exploring the convergence of cultural heritage, imaging technologies, immersive visualization, digital aesthetics and cultural (big) data applied. Since 2017, Sarah Kenderdine has been the director and lead curator of EPFL Pavilions, a new initiative for art and science.

The interview on the topics of applied museology in the digital world, immersion and future challenges and opportunities was conducted by Gunther Reisinger, habilitated media theorist at Graz University of Technology and project developer at NOUS Digital (Vienna).

For better understanding, the transcript of the interview is provided in the original language.

GUNTHER REISINGER Let’s start, with some definitions and terminological clarifications: What is in your opinion digital museology, what is experimental museology and what is computational museology?

SARAH KENDERDINE Indeed I am progressing towards this concept of computational museology, which is like an whole environment in coding-framework, that connects, or could connect all the processes of museum- and exhibition-making, so both are kind of world to the curatorial, semantic ontological world with it’s presentation, if you like, or its participatory presentation in the museum domain. Obviously both of these worlds are networked over the internet and physical. So the conjunction of the physical and digital is an underlying principal of a lot of the work that we are doing. All started out from the birth of the digital object: The birth of the digital object is a major challenge to the traditional curatorial thinking, but it doesn’t have to be. A lot of the resistance to digital technologies, which went under the banner of "They’re too expensive, so we won’t do it“, was actually a theoretical challenge, that museum people were not prepared to entertain. Those resistance is beginning to disappear now and I think COVID had an enormous impact on changing the way of museums think about the digital, because suddenly they are forced to negotiate with the potential of digital objects, of digital thinking, of connected thinking.
My laboratory and experimental museology is moving increasingly towards this computational museology: computational thinking is the core rubric of all the teaching at the university which allowed me to dive into these ideas of a complete system’s thinking approach to the museum. Once you throw digital in the mix you have a very powerful assemble: One of the things that happened in museums which was very pivotal in the way that we can think about them, was in the 2000s the free inclusion of cultural heritage, so this was suddenly grappling with the things that we were living. And there is, I would say, still a deep resistance to understand the affirmative aspects of the digital application: It in itself represented a major challenge to museum thinking: We now have museums that not just show objects, but living systems, living knowledge-systems and systems that are connected to the body and practice. We know that objects have incredible biographies that are enabled by the digital or by the way they move the object biography: The work that we are doing is trying to grapple with all these layers of complexity. And also at the pivot of new museology, which hasn’t been around for a long time, as the visitors in the mix participatory and dialogic experience. So we are really interested in the use of curatorial knowledge to produce a system, that visitors interact with, that can allow for new knowledge. That builds both on curatorial knowledge but also on the knowledge of the visitor: That’s the dialogic experience.


GR Do you notice any change in the theoretical approach, when you look at the history of museology?
How does it impact your theoretical work with your students?

SK My students actually are all computer engineers, so they are not theorists in the humanities. They are the people that are using machine learning and developing algorithms, they are very orientated in that direction, as a post to the theoretical position. But in our own theorization and those together with my colleagues as a post to the students themselves is this challenge of authenticity and authorship, the new materialities debate, the lessons of digital objects in museums. And then of course we work towards the uses of artificial intelligence and the enablement that they are off.
Even though they are all engineers they are a unique hybrid of engineers, who are very interested in humanities and related applications. And I think they are well informed about art history but they are not art historians: So we have these hybrid people in the humanities that come out of science and this is really thrilling to work not only with their brilliance but also with the theoretical framework, that we have established in the digital.


GR There is a strong interaction between media art, computational museology and the discussion on museum KPIs: What is a new user in this digital ages. Is there a relationship between those fields?

SK You know what’s curious about a lot of the work we develop even though it comes out of a museological heritage domain is that it is equally appreciated in a world of media art. So this connectivity between the two or the fact that new art emerges out of these re-negotiations of classical heritage often, is partly the ability to engage with new participatory frameworks and new esthetic frameworks, which means it’s equally art and media art. The reason I came to EPFL actually was to take advantage of great engineering in the application to this slightly prosaic domain of digital, cultural heritage. That’s really about replication and didactics, we move it much more towards the experiential and the open knowledge system.
The ZKM (Zentrum für Medienkunst) e.g. has been an amazing promoter for 30 years to bring together these worlds in a new artistic format.

GR What is your opinion concerning a differentiation between born digital and born analogue?

SK The engagement of the viewer in a digital system is always new, every performance is new. So it is born digital, even if it is an archival work. Media art often unfolds the time it is received, it‘s never the same and often it is based on archival material. So it is a new esthetic or acoustic framing of this world. That’s a lot of what we are doing: We are creating these new data sculptures if you like.


GR Regarding this ongoing discussion in the museums: What would be your definition of a new user, a digital user?

SK My work is lightly weighted in the museum galleries: So the challenge I often face is the one where multimedia, as it is classically defined, is layers of didactic information in a digital system.
So what often is the case: We produce a system that has no search interface. Curators don’t like that, because they cannot use it as an information system, it’s more an experiential space, it unfolds according to a kind of desire and association. Even though it is undepending, masses of meta-data and all the curatorial information is embedded in it, but the way that you query is different. That difference has a lot to do with democratic interface, because the curatorial interface is not democratic, it relies on a lot of prior knowledge and expert knowledge. And if you do not have that knowledge you will find searches that always repeat themselves, because it is the limit of knowledge. And we have a digital system where you are responding to the aesthetic or acoustic interest. You don’t necessarily know who these artist are, but they are, what you like to listen to: This unfolds in a completely different way. That is a real tension in a curatorial world. Or we have e.g. an interface which is 100.000s objects from Museums Victoria in Australia, an export from the CMS. It took 15 minutes to get the data, suddenly you’ve got access to 400.000 records in 360° across 18 themes, that uses meta-data to make all the relationships, but there is no search function: You can only start somewhere and make associations using the meta-data. The serendipity is browsing, if you like. That creates a real-time curating-machine.

GR Is it also a methodological question regarding the whole research-approach: Bottom-up versus top-down, to let the archive speak to us, and not the other way round?

SK Yes, because we have classically formed ontological frameworks for this material, this knowledge system thru curatorial meta-data framework. And then we are adding machine-intelligence to augment curatorial data sets. As a result, we have this rich machine-human-intelligence network, which then is unfolded by a user.

GR You are talking about rethinking also the curatorial concepts within the museums?

SK Yes, another example of a research project we have now, it’s called "Narratives from the long tail": It uses over 120.000 hours of video: This applies machine-learning, computer-vision-technology and visual analytics to a massive data set of very important collections. We work with both the machine and the curatorial knowledge, plus the machine-intelligence together: This moves towards this idea of a computational museology which is a symbiotic type of relationship between what is human knowledge and what a machine can see that humans can’t.


GR What is the role of engineering, the agencies, which are, in the end realizing all those projects? To speak a little ironically: Who is guiding whom?

SK There are two answers to that question: The one of the way in which museums have set up their procurements of technologies of a tender based creative relationship. And then there is the idea of the museum as laboratory where the technologies of today are incorporated into … or the development of them, are part of core thinking in museums. This requires directors who think about digital systems, who understand the power. And it requires curators who are prepared to go there: it’s a knowledge retention cycle. And what I see smartly in the other mode of working: There was more interesting stuff going on in the mid 2000s, then there is now. Simply, because the idea now is: We have very complex systems, therefore we don’t know anything about them, therefore we must get creative industries to provide this for us. And we don’t retain any knowledge about how the systems are built. They are fully formed. We fed them information: How do you breach those walls, how do you bring curators and directors along with their process of the creation of complex systems? It’s really fundamental to the transformation of museums towards the digital, because if you don’t have people inside the museum who think like that, you will always have products developed that have almost no bearing on the principals of curatorial thinking.
We get this very (not understandable) orientation of these systems which hit things like “oh, we are doing participatory work or whatever“, without looking at the more profound curatorial issues that are at stake: It was mentioned in the late 1890s at the Smithsonian Institute that the museum of the future would be a cross between the library and the laboratory. These ideas, these desires make museums more laboratory like. It doesn’t mean “experiment equals failures“, that’s not the cycle I am talking about: I am talking about the ability to think and to experiment with the way that you think.


GR Maybe one of the possible solutions could be a co-working-process, instead of a client- agency hierarchy?

SK I think the co-working model is a very, very good model, because a lot of the technologies are, how should we say, emerging. It is not easy for a museum to maintain the infrastructure they require. And in fact that’s how I ended up in academia, because I was looking for mechanisms to create infrastructure. To do the experiments we wanted to do in the museum. But access to infrastructure is critical: This is where the universities also have a big role to play.
In the co-curations of things or in the co-working situation universities are really good at infrastructure. They have suites of computers, they have big-vis-systems, you can experiment when you connect them. The EU recognizes this funding, that they are releasing is very much about that triangulation between the university, the custodian of objects and the creative industry together in these hybrid forms. I don’t think it’s not yet well resolved, I think this is very problematic territory for everybody, how this works, and how it works in the hustle and bustle of capitalism, also.

GR One of the advantages would be that larger digital companies do have the overview, because of working with many museums. This would be a possibility for example to avoid to re-invent the wheel once again and once again.

SK Yeah, absolutely, I mean it’s not about reinventing … you do see many things that are reworked. The same idea but different and it costs the original amount of money. These relationships are based on trust. That’s what’s fundamentally important as well, as you can start to become more experimental if you have the trust between the organizations that are working together. I see this with creative industries that are able to help pioneer with museum’s more radical solutions, if the basis for trust is there.

GR Another advantage would be to have a look on this rather new development called digital humanism, which is about the relationship between society and technological developments: Could this be an interesting cooperation – a co-working process with the museums, humanistic institutions at their core?

SK Absolutely, the gallery complex, that I direct, the EPFL pavilion is amplifying for outside-society based on those principals of digital humanism, rather than digital humanities. It’s a very big difference, it also touches the new machine world and the human. It’s not about using tools that are digitally enabled, it’s about understanding the mechanisms of relationships between humans and machine enabled objects, like IOT, the internet of things, and machine intelligence and what it all looks like. I think digital humanism is very spot on.


GR Let’s talk finally about user experiences in the museum, what do you expect it to be in the future?

SK The way in which curatorial knowledge is held, is augmented. This allows for experiences that are completely unpredicted by the developer of a system. So this is allowing for the unpredictability of outcomes, of curatorial outcomes. Largely they are not unpredictable these days, everybody has a huge amount of control on the systems that they are building and why they build them. So that the user is never lost, but I do see this potential for these new immersing frameworks which are almost a vision of what was intended. This ability to look around the corner even, to what was not thought of by the conceivers of the system this is potentially very interesting.

GR This is this bottom-up- approach: The archive speaks to us, all the curatorial aspect of the AI ...

SK Exactly, and what does that enable ... I think these are very, very interesting areas.

GR The performative aspects of the archive?

SK Also, because the mechanisms for engaging with this material inside museum space, is largely what I do, even if it’s network based. The systems allow now just infinitely more stuff to be accessed and these are very powerful experiences. So you can imagine that a museum visit now is hours long, because it’s infinite in the way that it permutates. Which is interesting for museums that they can build systems that are so rich that they invite multiple visits and that’s the holy grail for museums, the ability to invite people back.
To experience the same thing, but infinitely. And the richness, that is emerging, is a result of huge digitalization in museums and that’s important part to acknowledge that effort it’s gone the last thirty years is so fundamental to the next step. However it is archived and however it has traveled from one decade to the other, of course, there are interesting developments there, such as the transformation of digital data into synthetic DNA. So that you know you could store this data for 5.000 years and 11.000 hours of video will fit in a grain of sand. You know, that means all the data in the world will fit in a suitcase and then you are able to save it for 5.000 years and decode it and listen to it. These are very interesting phenomena, in the transport undergone.

GR This was a perfect summary of our talk: Thank you very, very much!

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