Sree Sreenivasan

For liberating the museum from its physical walls.

Sree Sreenivasan
Sree Sreenivasan is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first chief digital officer, bringing the art to life in new, inventive ways. [Photo: courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art was seeking its first chief digital officer in 2013, it “wanted someone not from the museum world and not from the art world,” says Sree Sreenivasan. “So I am superbly qualified.” A journalist who was a dean and chief digital officer at Columbia University, Sreenivasan put all 2,600 segments of the Met’s audio guide on SoundCloud. He teamed with Khan Academy to offer art tutorials on its e-learning site. He partnered with Facebook on Place Tips, a pilot project that delivers relevant info, photos, and posts based on a user’s location. He uses the Met as a social media schoolhouse, teaching Instagram classes and, outside the museum’s regular hours, leading #EmptyMet tours, during which he encourages participants to post prolifically. “We’re getting people to experience the museum in new ways,” Sreenivasan says. It’s working: The Met won a 2014 Webby Award for its social media efforts, and a study by the digital agency La Magnetica found it to be the world’s most influential museum on Twitter.

The award-winning Met app guides museum visitor’s through the days events.

Bonus Round

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

Seeking out creative inspiration is easy when you work at the Met. Everywhere you go, you are surrounded by 5,000 years of creative expression from across the planet. Our offices are spread across the two million square feet of the main building, which is three Manhattan blocks long–that means we are constantly going in and out of galleries, walking through grand spaces and strolling by small nooks when we go to meetings. Multiple times a day, I stop and take photos about big and small things I spot. Several people have remarked how much more interesting my Twitter and Instagram feeds have been since I moved to the Met.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

My wife and I wake up to the sounds of Morning Edition on WNYC, the local NPR station and the soothing voice of anchor Soterios Johnson. He is a former student of mine and the only Columbia Journalism School grad to have a song made in his honor. Jonathan Coulton’s ‘Dance, Soterios Johnson Dance’ is a fun, catchy, fictionalized version of Johnson’s life.

Of course, I reach for my phone to check the Twitter, the DarkSky weather app, Flipboard, and email, in that order. Until a couple of years ago, it was email first.

We got rid of the cable box in our bedroom a few months ago, so my answer last year would have included turning on the cable box to CNN for news and the local stations for weather info.

What is something about your job that you think would surprise people?

Most people are surprised to know that the digital media team at the Met has 70 people in it. Our world-class team works on topics I love: web, digital, social, mobile, video, data, email, gallery interactives, media lab, and so much more. We like to run our team like a 70-person startup inside a 145-year-old company.

People always ask me how I justify the museum spending so many resources of digital media. I would always talk about the importance of connecting the physical and the digital, the in-person and the online (here’s a TEDx talk I gave on this topic). But I recently got concrete proof that I’ve been sharing with anyone who will listen.

The photographer Carleton Watkins shot photos in 1861 of Yosemite that he showed to President Lincoln and inspired him to sign legislation that protected Yosemite forever and started the conservation movement. He did this without ever seeing Yosemite, just the facsimiles. We had an exhibition of these beautiful photos and they make the case better than I can for the value of something artificial (or digital) to inspire support, interest, and more, for something real.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

My favorite Twitter accounts include:

@NickKristof, the account of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. He is doing a new kind of opinion journalism–combining the traditional platform of the op-ed page with tweets, blog posts, and even Snapchats from his journeys around the world. I’ve written twice about his ground-breaking work: ‘Nick Kristof Live Tweets His Bahrain Visa Crisis’ and ‘Social Birthday Present For Nick Kristof Aims To Do Good.’

@BeschlossDC, the account of presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He tweets historical photos that are still relevant today. Among my favorites is this tweet from March 2013, showing a 1954 ID of Marilyn Monroe, known at the time as Norma Jeane DiMaggio.

And, of course @RoopaOnline, the account of Roopa Unnikrishnan, my wife, who’s a strategy and innovation consultant, Rhodes Scholar, and member of the equivalent of India’s sports hall of fame. She tweets about innovation and business culture.

My favorite Instagram accounts include:

@thomaspcampbell, the account of Tom Campbell, director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art–but not just because he’s my boss. He is doing something new among top leaders and their use of social media. He is sharing glimpses of his world and connecting with his followers in ways that are unprecedented for the head of the Met. Some people think me or our social team are posting for him. All of it is in the magic of his eyes, his fingers, and his iPhone 6.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

It’s impossible to be in a rut given my work. Every day, I learn something new about a world-famous artist, artwork, or genre. Every day, I meet new people from across our 2,200 staff members. Every day, I deal with trustees and other patrons who give so generously of their time, money, and ideas. And every day, I try to talk to at least one visitor about their experience with us. I’ve met people from all over the world and from across the street. Some visit multiple times a month and some once in their lifetime–but every one of them is happy to connect with a staffer and share their thoughts.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

When I was 12 years old, I entered an essay contest which asked a simple question: Who do you admire most? In an earnest, pre-teen way, I wrote about Abraham Lincoln, mainly because my teacher and my dad had made me memorize the Gettysburg Address that year. But 33 years later, I’d still say Lincoln. Some of the reasons are still earnest, but also because I think about him a lot in today’s political and digital environment. There’s more to think about during this 150th anniversary year of his assassination–and the 50th anniversary of Selma.

My Facebook profile header has, for months, been a photo of a handsomer-than-we-expect young Abe as he appeared on the first-ever campaign button to have a photograph, along with the quote, ‘And, in the end, it’s not the years in your life that counts. It’s the life in your years.’ Turns out another of my favorite Lincoln quotes–‘If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six sharpening my ax’–isn’t properly attributed to him. In fact, so many clever and smart sayings attributed to Lincoln turn out to be not by him (same is true for Einstein). The campaign button is from the Met’s photography collection.

Three other items I love in the collection: a bronze of Lincoln’s right hand (it holds a broom to resemble a document) and a Lincoln life mask–bronze made from a mold of his face–and a standing Lincoln statue that’s a smaller version of one in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.


About the author

Jeff Chu writes on international affairs, social issues, and design for Fast Company. His first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was published by HarperCollins in April 2013.