A Futuristic Docent in Dinosaur Hall

A new docent made his debut at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History a few weeks ago. This guide is about 6 feet tall, has a friendly face, and wears a bow tie. He's also a robot.

"We believe this will be the first long-term use of a robot docent," says Sandy Lepri, marketing and media relations manager at the museum. The robot docent - created by the robotic institute at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh - offers a 15-minute tour of the museum's dinosaur hall. But Ms. Lepri stresses that he's not intended to replace human docents, just to provide an interesting change of pace.

Some museums say they are moving more and more in the direction of offering audio or other kinds of electronic tours, especially as it seems hard to fill the ranks of docents. But Cynthia Cormier, director of education and curatorial services at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Conn., insists that machines can never replace humans. "People love that personal touch."

Docents are "the hosts and hostesses" of a museum, says Maribeth Flynn, coordinator of the docent program at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. They provide "the public face of the museum."

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