Sree Sreenivisan is a real social media icon. After leaving his position as the first chief digital officer at New York‘s Columbia University, he became the first person ever to hold that role at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We spoke to him about cell phones in museums, lust for objects and the German TV program, Tatort.
DO YOU SEE CHANGES IN HOW PEOPLE RELATE TO MUSEUMS IN THE DIGITAL ERA? DO YOU HAVE ANY DATA CONCERNING THEIR BEHAVIOUR?
I think at museums we’re at a very early stage of becoming digital. Museums are really good at counting visitors, tickets and money, but they aren’t good with the digital aspects. We want to change that and that’s what we’re working on now. Now we have Wi-Fi in all galleries and people are actually using it. It’s become clear that visitors want to engage and connect with us in different ways and use our content, so we hired an amazing expert on digital analytics, the first person at the Met with that focus exclusively.
SURFING THE INTERNET AND STARING AT YOUR MOBILE DEVICE WHILE BEING IN FRONT OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST PIECES OF ART... ONE COULD BE VERY PESSIMISTIC ABOUT THIS TREND. I’VE SEEN THIS PHOTO CIRCLING AROUND ON SOCIAL MEDIA ABOUT A BUNCH OF YOUNGSTERS SITTING IN FRONT OF REMBRANDT’S “THE NIGHT WATCH” AND STARING AT THEIR SMARTPHONES.
This phenomenon is not new. My own take on this is that you can take a snapshot of a moment and figure out how you want to approach art. Overtime we will learn how to use technology in the context of art and museums.
BEFORE COMING TO THE MET YOU WERE THE FIRST CHIEF DIGITAL OFFICER AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY. MUSEUMS AND UNIVERSITIES SEEM TO BE ON THE SAME LEVEL IN TERMS OF ADAPTING DIGITALIZATION. HOW DID YOU PERCEIVE COLUMBIA’S EFFORTS TO BECOME MORE DIGITAL?
When I became the chief digital officer at Columbia, there was a real hype around books and massive open classes. It was very interesting to watch how some academic institutions started to panic instead of taking things in their stride. I think there is still something magical about you and a professor in a classroom with ten people, you and that piece of art in a gallery, and no amount of digital is going to replace that immediately. What we need to think about is how we can find the right balance – connecting digital and physical is absolutely crucial.
WHERE DO YOU THINK DIGITAL COMMUNICATION IS HEADED? SOME SAY FACEBOOK SEES A GIANT EXODUS OF YOUNG USERS, OTHERS PRAISE SNAPCHAT. WHERE DO YOU STAND ON THIS?
I think that these are all generational things. People come and go, but Facebook is here to stay and will continue to have real meaningful impact for the years to come. Facebook is innovating like crazy and this is their key to success.
WHAT ABOUT THE YOUNGER KIDS? WE ALL REMEMBER THAT MOMENT WHEN WE REALIZED OUR PARENTS WERE ON FACEBOOK. WHEN YOU’RE AT HIGH SCHOOL THIS IS NOT SO COOL!
What happens is, that the 17 year-old will grow up and eventually go to college. Then he wants to know about his friend’s weddings and find out about his friend’s children, so he will join the social platforms of another generation when the time has come. That’s something that I think will keep happening.
DO YOU MEAN YOU JUST SWAP TO NEW SOCIAL MEDIA TOOLS, AS YOU GROW OLDER? DON’T YOU THINK THEY WILL JUST GO OUT OF BUSINESS AT SOME POINT?
No, I don’t think so.
THERE ARE ALWAYS PEOPLE CLAIMING THEY WILL. THE LAST GERMAN EMPEROR, WILHELM II SAID THAT HE DOESN‘T BELIEVE IN THE CAR, AND THE FUTURE OF TRANSPORTATION WILL BE WITH THE HORSE. WELL, WE KNOW HOW THAT WENT.
When I went to the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart, they had a horse in their exhibition. A stuffed one. The Emperor was wrong.
DO YOU SEE DIFFERENCES IN THE MUSEUM CULTURE IN GERMANY AND THE U.S.?
German museums provide a great mixture of traditional and modern, contemporary art. At one of the big German museums I saw an Egyptian book of the dead – a long, horizontal document with an an iPad attached to it. You can just drag the iPad and it translates for the text for you. That’s a very smart example of how you can involve modern devices to exhibitions.
YOU’VE WORKED AS A PROFESSOR OF DIGITAL JOURNALISM AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY. IT’S A TROUBLED INDUSTRY BECAUSE THERE'S NO SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS MODEL, BUT IN NEW YORK THERE SEEMS TO BE A LOT OF INTEREST IN INVESTING IN DIGITAL JOURNALISM. WHAT'S YOUR OPINION?
I think a lot of exciting things are happening now. Just yesterday I talked to an investor, who has recently invested in a bunch of really cool new media enterprises. Take Skimm or anchor.fm. Media companies are trying different things because they all feel that the have to try different things.
WHY DO YOU THINK WE IN JOURNALISM, OTHER THAN IN THE MUSIC OR FILM INDUSTRY, HAVE NOT FOUND NEW SUSTAINABLE WAYS TO MAKE PROFIT IN THE DIGITAL AGE?
We are constantly experimenting. If you look at the history of media innovation, you see trying the same thing in a different flavor: initially radio was basically just a newspaper read aloud and TV was basically radio with a camera. We’ll continue to evolve as we try something completely different, but we are not there yet.
HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE NEW YORK CITY TO BERLIN?
I’ve been to Berlin last year. Everybody loves Berlin, it’s a really interesting place in terms of design, space and technology. I did a social media workshop there on a Sunday night that was completely sold out, we had a great crowd. I remember someone saying that this was quite a surprise, because the German’s favorite crime show is on TV on Sundays.
Yes! We were trending on Twitter despite that popular TV show. We were number four, while Tatort was number one.