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Maltz Museum invites conversation with Rev. Otis Moss Jr. through technology

Kabir Bhatia
Ideastream Public Media
The Maltz Museum's first AI installation featured Holocaust Stanley Bernath. It's second focuses on the life and work of civil rights pioneer the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr.

The Maltz Museum in Beachwood needs visitors to help fine-tune an interactive exhibit on one of Cleveland’s most respected civil rights pioneers.

The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr. is the subject of an artificial intelligence installation, similar to one created in 2019 on Holocaust survivor Stanley Bernath.

“We pretty quickly recognized that this was not a technology to be taken for granted,” said museum spokeswoman Dahlia Fisher. “Our Managing Director David Schafer – who is very close to Rev. Moss – said, ‘We can do more to preserve not just history of our local legends… but of this national significance of remembering the civil rights movement from a primary source.”

The new project began when Case Western Reserve University researcher Sharon Milligan compiled hundreds of questions for Rev. Moss, who is a founding board member of the Maltz Museum.

“He's also recognized nationally, and even internationally, for his work not only in the religious sector as a pastor, but also as a civil rights activist and a voting rights activist,” said Fisher.

Moss began his career in his native Georgia before coming to Ohio in 1961. He spent the next five decades leading some of the largest Black congregations in the country. During that time, he was regional director of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and participated in the Selma civil rights march with King. The two were close friends, and Moss later befriended Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama.

His answers in the new installation are presented complete and unedited, based on what a visitor might ask. Some are brief, but many go into great detail – just like a good sermon. Fisher said the exhibit’s vocabulary is still being refined, and that’s where the public comes in: Beta testers are needed to ask questions of the interactive Rev. Moss.

“The folks who made this for us, they're called StoryFile,” said Fisher. “We need 150 questions per week to help generate the maximum possible effect, when we stop tinkering with it and the technology sort of becomes static and it lives sort of in permanence.”
The technology is not unlike Siri in the way it learns, but also in how it works. Visitors walk up and speak into a microphone next to a larger-than-life screen which displays Rev. Moss. Fisher said the exhibit is changing the way people can experience museums.

“When you think about museums, you think about walls and artifacts,” she said. “If there's interactivity, it's still with objects. This is a human artifact that's not bones.

“The biggest difference is that he's not going to ask you a question back,” she said. “There's this encouragement to really listen, which is teaching us civil discourse. Remember when we used to listen to each other? And not interrupt one another and we were really curious what the other person had to say? You don't want to interrupt him. You feel still this level of respect for this legend that you're speaking with.”

Visitors can help test the exhibit through Oct. 22.

On Oct. 26, the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. and his son – a renowned pastor in his own right – will attend the launch of a separate exhibit on activist photographers who documented the civil rights era.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.