A dive into Freer|Sackler voice apps and online collections with Alexa

This year we had the pleasure of attending AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in Phoenix, Arizona. From May 6 — 9, Tom, Daniel, Val, Jared, and Pattie headed to the Southwest for four days of fantastic sessions, networking, and swag collecting. With the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s Chief Digital Officer Courtney OCallaghan, we had the opportunity to present on the advancements Alley has been working on with the Freer|Sackler in creating their Alexa Skill and bringing their TMS collection online with WordPress and Elasticsearch. It was a fantastic to co-present this talk with Courtney, and though we can’t replicate her stage presence in words, we’re excited to share details of our collaboration.

TMS Connect

The Museum System (TMS) is one of the largest collection management systems and is utilized for storing all of the Freer|Sackler collection data. In collaboration with Freer|Sackler, Alley, and Automattic, we built an open-source WordPress plugin called TMS Connect that synchronizes collections and objects into WordPress. As many museums customize their TMS installation, the TMS Connect plugin is built in a flexible manner to allow museums to customize each integration based on their own business rules. This allows entire collections to be quickly exposed online without the need for a separate website. By storing in WordPress, developers can flexibly build and extend capabilities such as custom treatments or easily surfacing certain subsets of data.

Freer|Sackler Alexa Skill

A couple of months ago, we began having conversations around creating an Alexa Skill for the Freer|Sackler. The availability of an Alexa Skill would give a new medium for interacting with their existing audience and a way to reach a new potential audience. We started exploring the different experiences that could be created and the additional value that we could deliver to users through this kind of conversational interface. Together we landed on a few initial goals and features for the first version of the skill:

  • Allow users to easily consume and digest relevant content and information
  • Ability to hear about current exhibitions
  • Ability to hear about current events
  • Get information about the museum itself (Hours, Admission, Location)
  • Optimized for screen devices such as the Echo Show

Over the last year, Alley has been working on an open-source plugin called VoiceWP. This plugin allows any WordPress site to create its own Alexa Skills. With site integrations such as TMS Connect and Trumba, an online event system, we were able to leverage these data sources in creating a WordPress-powered Alexa Skill. This WordPress-powered approach comes with a number of benefits, such as being able to utilize the existing site infrastructure, having direct access to data, and allowing the Alexa Skill to be managed and content to be curated from within the familiar interface of the WP Admin dashboard.


With this initial version, we simply allow users to get a listing of current or future exhibitions and drill down into a single exhibition for more information. Single exhibition listings read out a brief description of that listing. For devices with screens, this information is also displayed in a scrollable list format, and items can be selected by touch, with single listings displaying that description along with an associated image.

Going forward, with the rich data provided through TMS Connect, adding the ability to ask follow-up questions about a single item, and find related objects and information will be fast follows. With the taxonomy structure around exhibitions, we can have filtering by types of exhibitions, for example, filtering down to “Ancient Near Eastern Art” or “Arts of the Islamic World”, allowing the user to drill down to the types of information they care about through shorter dialogue exchanges.


Asking for Event information works in a similar manner conversationally to the exhibitions, providing a consistent conversational interface across multiple content types. The data for these event listings is coming via the Trumba API, and allows the user to get events and drill down into individual events. For screen devices, we display complementary information within the list view, including the date and time of the event, providing additional context without cluttering and lengthening the audio responses from Alexa.

Our next iteration on Events functionality within Alexa will enable follow-up questions around ticket cost, venue, etc. Date filtering and using the existing Trumba Category taxonomy will allow a user to filter into the type of events they’re interested in, such as Tours, Performances, Workshops, etc.

Where the Freer|Sackler skill will go next

Moving forward, we’ll be improving and expanding upon the experiences in this Alexa Skill. With five podcast series, all of the episodes are made available directly on the site, with content hosted on Soundcloud and on the Freer|Sackler servers. Podcast support in the Alexa Skill will be an important new feature with support for the multiple podcast series currently being published. As this is native audio content, being able to leverage it through the Skill is an obvious benefit and provides a nice contrast to text-to-speech content being read by Alexa’s voice. Rounding out the current roadmap will be the ability to register for events via the skill and, finally, integrating Amazon Pay for purchasing research publications by voice.

Are you interested in bringing your collection online or helping your audience use voice to learn more about your museum or gallery? We’d be happy to tell you more and point you in the right direction — reach out to us at info@alley.co, and we’ll start a conversation.