The museum where I work as a curator of prints and drawings instructed staff to work from home during the coronavirus lockdown. In a recent Zoom conference call, our director revealed that revenue had dropped to such an extent during our closure that the entire institution may be in peril. He said that we need to recalibrate (he’s right), but then he went on about the immediate need for blockbuster shows and Instagrammable experiences to drive up future ticket sales.
There has been a big push to digitize collections for our newly redesigned website, but the media guys haven’t uploaded my files, and only a quarter of my collection has even been scanned or photographed. The museum recently launched flashy online virtual exhibitions in response to the pandemic and they’re generating a lot of traffic.
I feel left out of this digital revolution and the overall big show boom. It certainly looks like ticket sales, algorithms, and social media are taking over the industry.
What I’m wondering is: will curators like me become obsolete in the future?
We pondered this question while reading a Hard Truthing research report titled A Future That Works: Automation, Employment, and Productivity, by fellow consultants McKinsey & Company. They report that engineers have nearly perfected automation technology that can simulate human cognition, social behaviors, and emotional capacities.
Evidently, “about half of all the activities people are paid to do in the world’s workforce could potentially be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies.” The rise of robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning could have devastating consequences even for professionals as humanistic as museum curators.
As art institutions continue to raise ticket prices and roll out blockbusters, we may come to see shows that will be curated entirely by optimized algorithms.
Curators must draw on their most human qualities in order to combat the steel-cold judgment of a smart refrigerator that can tell you when your milk has spoiled or who the next hotshot Bard grad will be. Only by trusting in their eyes and hearts will today’s curators have a slim chance to outsmart machines.