Revealing new threads in global art, history, and humanity with AI

The new Museum of Art & Photography in Bengaluru, India is tapping into AI technology to find previously unknown links between South Asian textiles and art from around the world.
The Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) was launched digitally in 2020, and its educational platform, The MAP Academy, earlier this year, by collector Abhishek Poddar in Bengaluru, India’s tech capital. As Poddar explains, “We want to show our audience that art is fun, it is not elitist, and it is for everyone.”

This mission grew even more urgent during the Covid-19 pandemic. The museum pivoted to exhibiting online, making it one of India’s first digital museums. Witnessing the enthusiastic public response raised a provocative question: In what new ways could technology help art lovers, scholars, and other institutions to engage deeper with their paintings, photographs, textiles, and other works?

That vision drove the creation of INTERWOVEN, an innovative new tool that reveals how pieces in MAP’s collection connect to other artworks around the world—limestone carvings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, paintings at the V&A in London, paper fans at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and much more. Starting with a single piece of artwork from MAP, users embark on a journey that crisscrosses mediums and eras, arriving at surprising and revealing points in art history.

Developed in collaboration with Microsoft’s AI for Cultural Heritage initiative, INTERWOVEN uses machine learning to help reveal common themes and shared histories in artistic traditions from across the globe.

"Using technology to enhance human ingenuity, celebrate human creativity, and enable human connection is at the heart of Microsoft’s work. INTERWOVEN reminds us both of the vibrancy of different cultures and how these traditions are shared in a conversation across time and place."

- Brad Smith, President and Vice Chair, Microsoft

Given South Asia’s deep tradition of textile creation, and longstanding history in the trade, MAP’s collection is uniquely suited to showcase the worldwide spread of culture from one regional artform to another.

“While the project began with an idea to explore MAP’s entire collection, one of the artforms that speaks so eloquently to global connections is textiles.”

- Kamini Sawhney, MAP’s Director

Underlying the tool is a robust analytic engine, powered by Microsoft AI. Computer vision and text recognition software help distill images and descriptions of artworks into a massive database. A machine learning algorithm parses the digitized information to discern fine patterns that link seemingly disparate works of art. As new collections are added to INTERWOVEN over time, the database and set of connections will continue to grow.

For art historians and curators, INTERWOVEN’s AI can help uncover commonalities that inspire new ideas and novel avenues of scholarship. But anyone with an interest in art and culture can discover connections on the platform, either through open exploration or a journey curated by art scholars. INTERWOVEN is a tantalizing illustration of how human-centered technology—when it is thoughtfully and collaboratively designed—can help elevate and expand access to our collective history.

"We’ve always wanted to be the museum for the future, experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what technology can do in the museum space—not for its own sake, but as a meaningful tool for improving access and enhancing cultural experiences."

– Abhishek Poddar, Founder & Trustee, Museum of Art & Photography (MAP)