Haida Gwaii Museum enlists robots to guide NY exhibit

The Haida Gwaii Museum has partnered with the American Museum of Natural History.

The ancient world of Haida Gwaii has officially entered the space age. The Haida Gwaii Museum has partnered with the American Museum of Natural History for a groundbreaking, high-tech program to make the Haida world come alive for people a continent away.

With the assistance of a remotely operated robot, patrons of the New York museum can receive a guided tour of Haida artifacts from someone actually on Haida Gwaii.

“We are on this remote archipelago, on the edge of the world as they say. We have to find a way to reach out to other museums in particular,” Haida Gwaii Museum’s Executive Director Scott Marsden said.

The system hinges on the use of a remotely operated robot equipped with wheels, a webcam and video display, allowing its Haida Gwaii operator the freedom to move around the New York museums’ Hall of Northwest Coast Indians exhibit, see visitors face to face and interact in a real-time, conversational environment to better inform and educate visitors on the objects before them, and Haida culture in general.

Tests have also been run with a robot at the Haida Gwaii Museum to expose New York visitors to the collection here as well.

The Haida Gwaii Museum has been working with their New York counterparts for a few years to assist with the Haida collection that’s been in possession of the American Museum of Natural History now for more than a century. Last year the AMNC contacted the Museum in Skidegate with the idea of animating their Haida collection with a short children’s film developed with the assistance of Haida artists. This then inspired them to push the boundaries and develop something more interactive.

“We wanted to have a live feed or interaction,” Mr. Marsden explained. “Essentially we are helping them and they are helping us.”

Last year when the project was in its infancy Mr. Marsden walked around the Haida Gwaii Museum with a laptop and a cheap webcam to engage with people in New York via Skype.

“The first robot we tried was called double robot, essentially an Ipod on a pole with wheels that move.” The robot then links to another double robot in New York.

With the poor internet connection  the team could not get the robot to every part of the museum. “They wanted to see the ocean, they couldn’t believe there was a museum by the ocean,” Mr. Marsden said.

The team in Haida Gwaii took turns operating the robot in New York and interacting with the crowds. Raven Leblanc was the first face of the robot in New York as he described the artifacts behind the glass to excited tourists and patrons of the American Natural History Museum.

The program is not fully operational at this time, as perfecting the robot and the system will require a little more time. The Wall Street Journal found this project intriguing and were present for a special test run of the program last month.

“This has incredible potential for this museum. It will help other museums animate their collections and help us make a connection to them,” Mr. Marsden said. “We need to find a way to make connections with other museums around the world.”