Sree Sreenivasan has been in a 30-year love affair with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Right now, he’s the Met’s chief digital officer, but as a child, he was a student at PS 6, an elementary school on the upper east side of Manhattan–a block from the Met–with a teacher who was fond of saying “It’s criminal to live in New York and not come to the Met once a month.”
She used to march her students to the famous art museum every week for classes on art, history, math, and science.
So, years later when the Met offered Sreenivasan a job as CDO, how could he refuse?
“If someone you love from afar calls you after 30 years, then you’ve got to take the call, and with your wife’s permission, carry on, which is what I did and we did and she did, and we ended up here,” he said.
Sreenivasan didn’t come to the Met an art expert.
“They were really looking for someone new to the art world, and I was super qualified in that sense,” he said. The important thing was that he knew how to use digital to tell stories.
Before working at the Met, Sreenivasan had been a journalism professor at Columbia University for 20 years. He’d worked in news before that, but as his parents and grandparents had been teachers, he took the opportunity to get in a classroom himself.
“I’m especially proud to have been involved in teaching at this particular time, these 20 years when technology changed, when the industries changed, when the world changed, and I love being someone who could explain changes in technology,” he said.
Having that eye for the relationship between digital and storytelling helped prepare him for the Met.
Daily, Sreenivasan and his team are tasked with figuring out how to connect the Met, which is the largest art museum in the United States, with the digital world.
“It’s a question of finding the right technology at the right moment at the right time to tell a particular story,” he said.
It seems to be going well–the Met’s Instagram account has more than a million followers, and Spanish digital agency LaMagnética named it the most influential museum on Twitter.
With that audience, they try to figure out how to get attention to pieces of art, or exhibits.
Sreenivasan said the Met’s biggest competition isn’t other museums.
“Our competition is Netflix and Candy Crush and life in 2015, and now 2016. What that means is that we have to fight to get attention to everything we’re doing,” he said.
And, somewhere in the middle of all that, the Met wants to make sure that if a museum-goer walks by a Michelangelo, they know it.
“Individual pieces have stories. The stories may not be about the maker, but they might be something else. All of it is about us finding those stories, digging them out, and then telling them at the right time in the right way,” he said.
Sometimes the museum-goers lead the way. Every exhibition now has a hashtag because people were standing around in the galleries asking what the hashtag for exhibits was.
A more involved undertaking to aid outreach has been The Artist Project, which is an online series in which artists talk about their favorite works in the museum. All the while, Sreenivasan tries to keep the art as the focal point.
“Doing storytelling is what I’ve been doing for two decades, thinking about ways of using technology in good ways, smart ways. All of those, I think, are relevant and connected,” he said.
In his own words…
How do you unplug?
“I have twelve-year-old twins, and we started a process a couple of years ago where there’s no technology at the dining table. At that point, it was aimed at the parents, but now it’s good we have that because it helps us with the kids’ use of their technology. That’s when we don’t use technology. Whenever we can, over the weekend, checking in once a while, rather than living on the phone, I think is what I aim to do. The problem, as you know, in truly disconnecting is that you then have a whole lot more to catch up with afterwards. Everybody talks about the FOMO and the fear of missing out. To me, that’s not what bothers me. My problem is that I don’t miss out, and there are all these things that you still have to respond and participate in. I’d be happy if I could miss out. Instead, they just accumulate and you still have to deal with them.”
Is there a particular artwork that you’re particularly fond of or that you like?
“It changes every day, but there are so many pieces here that I love. There’s a beautiful [piece]–a face of a queen. It’s a yellow color sculpture, and the face has been broken. The top half of the face is gone, so basically you see her lips and her chin. You would think, ‘Well, this is a broken piece,’ but it’s far from broken. It had all this power and strength and beauty in it, even though it doesn’t look perfect. That’s one of the things I’ve learned here, is that power and beauty doesn’t come from perfection, it comes from the quality and how something is put together. You’re seeing that.”
What do you read for fun or for inspiration, or whatever?
“I still subscribe to a print daily newspaper. I read a lot of magazines. We subscribed to several magazines, so I’m a big believer in print. Sometimes people will see me and say, ‘My God, you’re a chief digital officer. Why do you still read print?’ I still believe in the magic of print and how we tell our stories through print. Otherwise, I like to read historical fiction when I can. I also end up reading a lot of nonfiction. Now we’re in the political cycle, so lots and lots of blogs and stuff around politics and where this country is heading.”