Digital transformation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Chief Digital Officer for one of the largest museums in the world shares his learnings and lessons on helping an established organization transform, change, innovate, and adapt.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor
When I came up with the idea for CXO-Talk and afterwards invited Vala to co-host, it was just a dream to have extended conversations with people like Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Sree Sreenivasan (image courtesy CXO-Talk)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is among the most important art institutions in the world. As a New Yorker, I can personally attest to the richness and importance of this museum as a cultural icon and resource. So, of course, I was thrilled and excited to invite Sreenivasan as a guest on CXO-Talk.

Before joining the Metropolitan Museum of Art as CDO, he was a journalist, served as Columbia University's first Chief Digital Officer, and was Digital media professor at the Columbia Journalism School, where he taught for 20 years. Sreenivasan is also a passionate and creative person with whom I enjoyed speaking.

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Our discussion covered a lot of ground including the CDO role, the importance of arts funding, and digital transformation in a museum environment. You can watch the entire CXO-Talk conversation on video below.

Here are edited comments highlighting key points in the conversation:

On why the Metropolitan Museum of Art is significant

We are the world's largest encyclopedic Museum, which means we represent 5,000 years of human creativity from every corner of the world, from every country of the world. There are fabulous museums in other parts of the world and in New York, but not all of them have every culture. They specialize in certain things or have gaps but we have everything.

We are going to celebrate our 150th anniversary in 2020 and that gives you a sense of how long we have been doing this. We have 6.2 million visitors in person at the Met, the largest tourist attraction in New York. And, we have about 40 million people online.

On funding for the arts

Technology is key to museums and we need support from the people watching -- the VC's and others who have influence. We need your support. Wall Street money, oil money, built all of our great museums, but now it's time for the next generation to step up and support the arts. The arts are hard to quantify compared to [other] things, but we can do it all if we have partners and people like you.

On the Chief Digital Officer role at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

CDO's are a brand new type of role within corporations and it's also a role that's in transition and may not always be around. I see it as the person who deals with content that's created, shared, and interacts with the public-facing part of the museum.

All of this is done in conjunction with our CTO's team; they're the ones that build our infrastructure. All our galleries are wired, so he does that for us and for the museum. We do all kinds of things that require close contact with the CTO and the CIO. Anything that touches the public audience we're the ones responsible for that. But, it's all built on the infrastructure that the CIO, Jeff Sparr, has pulled together for us.

It would also be fair to say that on any given day there may be some confusion about who does what. But this idea -- does it face the audience or does it not face the audience -- helps us stay out of each other's way. But, as I said, we do so many things together, we don't worry about all the things that we have to do separately.

So, what is my role and how do we motivate our team? What we say is that it's our role to make several things with this cup [shows an ancient artifact from the museum]. We need to make it shine online, attractive so people want to come and see it in person. We want to get a generation of people to support that cup, so people will come, and it will have a roof over its head and it can stay.

I tell people that the role of the CDO is also Chief Listening Officer.

On the importance of storytelling

I am not an expert on any kind of art myself, but I do love storytelling. I believe the future of all businesses is in storytelling and connecting the physical and the digital, the in-person and the online. At the Met we are committed to this idea of storytelling. Telling stories is the big challenge.

On extending the in-person museum experience into digital

That's something we think about all the time. I want to build a virtuous circle: have such a fantastic experience online that you want to come to the Museum, and then when you are here have such a fantastic time that you want to stay in touch. We need to give you a bunch of tools to do that.

We want you to come here and like us so much that you actually follow us on social. Then you will get our app and look at it.

On the Metropolitan Museum of Art's app strategy

We are not trying to do "museum in your pocket," so here are the highlights of all of the things you should see. We also have "Today's Events." Then we have this thing called "Staff Picks" -- fun things that you can look at. It says, "Two million objects and many opinions." Fun things like, all of the "Met-stashes" (the moustache tour), so you can take that at the Met and you can travel.

And then we also have "For Members." A lot of things are free but we want people to sign up. We have 150,000 members, tens of thousands who don't even live in America who support us that way. Then Upcoming Events. And finally, instead of a press release section, we just have Twitter going up here.

But the principle here we took from a couple of tools that we love. One is the NYTnow app. It is so good that I deleted the main NYT app. It's only 30% of the New York Times, but it's the right 30% of the New York Times.

Another app I love is called Dark Sky. In a world of thousands of weather apps, this does one thing. It tells you whether it is going to rain or snow where you are standing in the next hour. It just works and I love it. But not only does it work, it looks really beautiful. Those are principles we can get behind at the Met.

Sal Khan, we just launched 100 videos on his platform, so we could extend the reach of what we are doing. These are examples of ways in which we think about technology that we don't invent. We want to work with companies, with partners, around the world.

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On culture change and digital transformation

In the art department, it's very easy to hire people because they want to be here their whole lives. But here in technology it's a little different. People have not necessarily even spent much time in the Met.

How do I compete for developers with you guys? How do I compete with Wall Street, server farms, people who can give equity, all those startups? We tell our own story about the Met: what an exciting place it is, that it's looking ahead and looking back at the same time.

To survive, an institution has to be thinking ahead all the time but always thinking about our great scholarship, our great authority, and making it all accessible. If continue to crack that, we're going to do fine.

All I need are people who want to do things, then others will come along. I used to do workshops in the mid-90's about a new form of technology that everybody needed to embrace, but wasn't sure of. That technology was email. I would [explain] why people should use email. People would say, "I love the fax, so why would you want email?" You had to show them what makes sense.

The people [working at the museum] understand technology, but not necessarily what you or I are talking about. Think about that cup [from the museum collection], why does it exist today? Because the people who made that cup had the right technology in 2000 BC, or 1000 BC or 100 BC, and because of that, that cup exists today.

That beautiful iPhone you own will die in two years. So technology has been part of museums forever, it's just a different kind of technology.

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On the Metropolitan Museum's collection information system

We have our collection information system. These are digital asset management and text management of our fields of information so that we catalog everything we do permanently. So, five years from now, someone can come and say, "Hey, isn't that a knockoff made in India; it's not from Greece."

The only proof we have is the digital record that has the provenance that we publish publicly. Our goal is to keep that cup with us for 2000 years and we have a role to play in that process, and we think about that all of the time

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CXO-Talk brings together prominent executives, authors, and analysts to discuss leadership, transformation, and innovation. Join me and Vala Afshar every Friday for a new episode of CXO-Talk.

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