I recently had the pleasure to speak with Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sree came to his position leading the Met’s digital media department in 2013 after teaching digital media for 21 years at Columbia University. When asked to describe what that transition has been like, he explained that it’s been an amazing couple of years, during which he started out knowing nothing, and by now he’s learned a lot. But don’t let that humility fool you. Recently named as one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People of 2015, Sree has made a tremendous impact as the first chief digital officer at this world renowned arts institution.
During the time that he’s been at the Met, the former dean and chief digital officer of Columbia has initiated some brilliant innovations, including placing all 2600 pieces of the museum’s audio guide on Soundcloud, developing a series of art tutorials with the Khan Academy, and partnering with Facebook on Place Tips, a new pilot app that brings localized information to users connecting to businesses through a dedicated beacon. In September of 2013, in the month after he began his new position, he launched Digital Underground, a blog that chronicles all of the digital activity at the Met and The Cloisters (its branch for medieval art and architecture located in upper Manhattan).
Sree describes his position at the Met as running, “… a 70-person startup inside a 145-year-old company.” His department’s mission is to connect the physical, in-person experience of the museum to the digital, online world. One of their main challenges has been to help potential visitors get past the notion that the museum is an overwhelming place. By dispensing information in what he calls, “digestible chunks,” he’s been helping people to understand that the Met is a place where they can feel comfortable, and not have to see everything at once.
Another obstacle is that many people don’t know what they’re missing. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to the world’s largest baseball card collection outside Cooperstown – 30,000 cards! I did not know that. In fact, most people have no idea what’s happening at the museum. Says Sree, “We have to grab them by the lapels and tell them what we’re doing.”
In the larger exploration of how people are touching and engaging with his institution, Sree notes that the museum’s biggest competition is not another museum, but rather, “… Netflix, Candy Crush, life in 2015.” Indeed, how does one break through the layers of distraction inherent in modern living?
In tackling the process of overcoming all of these barriers to attendance, Sree and his team have been able to rely not only on the latest technologies of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but also on more “old school” tools such as blogging, email, newsletters and podcasts. Perhaps this is because, as Sree suggests, new technology has made it easier to implement these older tools. In fact, the Met currently sends out over 55 million emails a year, they have now exceeded the one million mark on Twitter and, according to a study by the digital agency La Magnetica, have achieved the position of most influential museum on that platform. Clearly, the innovation here lies in a successful blending of old and new technologies.
“We can learn from anybody and everybody,” is a theme that runs through Sree’s entire approach to leading the digital activities of the museum. In the development of their newsletter, for example, they found inspiration at The Skimm, a kind of political Daily Candy geared towards millennial women. Operating in a global landscape as they do, the Met must also take into consideration a diverse, international audience. According to Sree, their largest source of incoming traffic is from China. Accordingly, the Met now has a presence on the microblogging platform, Weibo, the Chinese answer to Twitter.
In establishing a strong digital presence for the Met, Sree has had to consider that the institution actually comprises four locations, and this necessitates a unique way of working. There are the three physical locations, including the main building along 5th Avenue, The Cloisters and the Met Breuer, formerly the home of the Whitney Museum, which will open as a modern art outpost in 2016. Their fourth location is the digital Met, whose visitors Sree considers with the same care as their millions of physical visitors. How exciting is that?
For those of us who work on a smaller scale (um, that would be most of us), it’s heartening to learn that the same principles we use for promoting our events are the ones that Sree Sreenivasan applies in his highly influential role. Take for example Sree’s event pet peeves – these could have been voiced by almost any of us: “Sometimes I go to conferences and I’m disappointed to see that they’re not using hashtags properly, the invitations don’t have Twitter handles, the name tags don’t have Twitter handles – they’re not curating the conversation people are having in a smart way…” Best practices are best practices, after all…
One of the most exciting digital developments at the Met is the recent launching of The Artist Project, a series of 100+ videos featuring artists talking about the pieces of art at the museum that move and inspire them, followed by physical gatherings with the artists to discuss further. It features a diverse array of voices and perspectives, exemplifying the way in which the museum’s fourth location, under Sree’s leadership, has deepened and expanded its outreach. Currently being released 20 episodes at a time, the series even taps into the public’s current love of binge watching its favorite programs…
In his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sree Sreenivasan applies the best practices of the digital media world to one of the biggest art playgrounds on the planet. The challenge and the gift of his job can perhaps be best summed up by this simple statement of purpose: “I believe the future of everything is in storytelling, and I want to tell a million plus stories about our million plus pieces of art to a billion plus people. So that’s my goal.”
Don’t miss Sree Sreenivasan at techsytalkLIVE on August 14th. Tickets are still available HERE.