For years at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, visitors would meet US veteran volunteers as they greeted guests and shared first-hand experiences of their service. But as this generation has grown older, that living connection to history is increasingly absent.
Now, a new project powered by artificial intelligence (AI) is aimed at keeping those conversations as part of museum visitors’ experience. Voices From the Front, an interactive installation due to debut in early 2024, draws on hours of interviews with people ranging from a bomber pilot to an aircraft factory worker, allowing museum-goers to ask questions and hear their pre-recorded responses.
“We use generative AI right through the whole system,” says Stephen Smith, the chief executive and co-founder of StoryFile, the immersive technology and video-capture company that produced Voices From the Front. “The only thing that is not being driven by some AI is the story itself. And what we’re really interested in doing is collecting or providing the technology for others to collect authentic human stories.”
In other words, nothing in the accounts told by the people in Voices From the Front is generated or manipulated by AI—only what they said in their interviews is presented—but AI facilitates accessing a huge archive of their recorded audio and video. The quick retrieval and matching of content from these interviews in response to spoken questions is aimed at making it feel like a real conversation.
“We saw this as a great way to capture the attention—particularly of younger—museum visitors,” says Joey Balfour, the National WWII Museum’s assistant director of oral history. “And that’s the important thing: preserving these stories and sharing them with future generations so that they’re not forgotten, because as soon as we stop telling the stories, they’re gone.”
Balfour’s team chose more than a dozen people to participate and travelled to Los Angeles to be on site for their interviews in the StoryFile studio. These started in early 2022 and included hundreds of questions, ranging from topics on people’s personal lives to their wartime service.
“We wanted a diverse collection of experience sets, not just with branches of service,” Balfour says. “We wanted to make sure that we had a good mix of races and genders, because they all experienced the war differently.”
Most of the veterans, workers on the home front and others who will feature in Voices From the Front have done interviews with the museum before. They include Major John “Lucky” Luckadoo, who at 101 is the last surviving B-17 bomber pilot from the 8th US Air Force 100th Bomb Group, and Romay Davis, a 104-year-old Congressional Gold Medal recipient for her service in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion—the first all-women-of-colour US Army unit sent overseas, which tirelessly cleared mail backlogs for soldiers in England and France in 1945.
Continuity through AI
Balfour sees AI as advancing what the museum’s oral history programme was founded on—particularly the late historian and museum co-founder Stephen E. Ambrose’s collecting of oral histories for his books, including Band of Brothers (1992), which was made into an HBO series in 2001 by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Often, Ambrose would place newspaper advertisements asking veterans to record their stories on cassette tapes and mail them in. Voices From the Front may use more elaborate technology, but Balfour considers the goal of safeguarding personal narratives of history to be the same.
“While it’s our duty to share and preserve these stories, we also need to be able to engage the public,” Balfour says. “This is the next evolution in technology when it comes to access to individuals’ stories.”
The National WWII Museum has consistently foregrounded individual accounts of the war in its exhibitions—such as its Dog Tag Experience, in which visitors follow a single service member’s story through interactive kiosks. The museum’s Liberation Pavilion, which opened on 3 November, likewise includes oral histories in its examination of the human costs and aftermath of the war.
Preserving historical voices
StoryFile was launched in 2017, coming out of an earlier collaboration with the USC Shoah Foundation and the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California called
Dimensions in Testimony. It focused on interviews with Holocaust survivors and used language recognition technology that retrieves parts of the interviews through the sound of a user’s voice—similar to how Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa function.
StoryFile’s interactive interviews have already been presented at other museums, engaging visitors with complex or difficult histories through the narratives of first-hand witnesses—such as Tulsa Race Massacre survivors in a 2021 exhibition at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a 2019 interview with Japanese American soldier Lawson Iichiro Sakai on his experience during the Second World War in an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Of course, over time, it is inevitable that when visitors speak with Voices From the Front interviewees, they will be talking to people who are no longer alive. One of the participants, Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams, a Medal of Honor recipient and Battle of Iwo Jima veteran, died in 2022.
Smith says that his company had an early experience of talking with someone posthumously via interactive conversation when the Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster died soon after an interview in 2018. “I realised that Aaron Elster had done that interview for that very reason, which is that he wanted to be able to continue to answer those questions when he was no longer alive,” Smith says. “That was his intent in being involved in the programme.”
As museums continue to experiment with AI, there will be moments of questioning how to sensitively present history in a new way. “The conversation around these technologies is often shaped by big tech companies,” says Oonagh Murphy, a senior lecturer in digital culture and society at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a co-founder of the Museums + AI Network. “Museums can provide a valuable space for critical technology discourse, a space not to simply use or show, but a place to help define what and how these technologies should be used in wider society.”
Although much AI use in museums (such as in collections and operations management) may not be as visible as it is in Voices From the Front, AI’s increasing presence will continue to offer opportunities to reimagine exhibitions and present material while necessitating the technology’s thoughtful integration into the visitor experience. History can come alive through interactive installations, but the humanity of its stories remains crucial.