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Should art museums embrace technology for a better viewing experience?

Social Media strategist for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Sree Sreenivasan says that museums need to find new ways of 'telling the story'

Sreenivasan at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy: Tanya Arianne Malott
Sreenivasan at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy: Tanya Arianne Malott

As audience tastes mature and evolve in the digital era, art museums need to up their game to cater to the demands of an eclectic, information-driven viewership. Sreenath “Sree" Sreenivasan, former chief digital officer of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and of New York City, and his team were responsible for launching The Met app that won accolades. In a conversation with Lounge over the phone from New York, Sreenivasan, who is now the digital consultant for the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, points to the key things museums need to be cognisant of to remain relevant in the blink-and-miss era. Edited excerpts:

In terms of viewing art, do you think we’ve gone beyond the traditional four walls of museums?

Well, we are certainly seeing a new way in which art is being experienced, but I would step back a bit and talk about how modern life is changing at such a fast pace and in such profound ways, that you cannot expect museums to just be isolated or insulated from these massive changes taking place all around us. Institutions need to constantly think about how they should respond to these changes. Now, there is this understanding that there are a couple of institutions—or industries, if you will—that are exempt from the change. I’m referring to the education industry and the culture industry. They both like to think of themselves as “above the fray", that they are not “industries", and that they have a higher purpose or a higher calling. But there is no reason why educational institutions and museums shouldn’t undergo change as well.

In the digital era then, what has been the biggest change for these institutions?

The audience has changed. It now has higher expectations, more demands. People are very keen to connect and interact in different ways. They want more information, at a quick pace, in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, most museums are just not ready for that, because they will tell you, “Well, we are already successful and we don’t need to change." But what seems like success today is not the success they will have in the future because the metrics are going to change. Part of the problem is that when you are already successful, you are least ready for change. And that’s the problem with the cultural sector, because they are comfortable with what they have already done and they can point to specific successes and think that is enough.

But museums need to be constantly thinking in new ways as to how to engage and connect with their audiences, how to tell their stories. Of course, there was a time when certain cultural institutions were considered exemplary and people would just visit them because of their reputation. Today, however, all that is changing very, very fast. As a cultural institution, therefore, you have to have an email and content strategy. You have to think about your audience—not just those visiting your space—but you have to have a “Before, During and After Strategy". Every institution thinks about the During, but what about the Before, what about the After? You have to build a relationship with your audience. You have to start thinking of them as customers, because let’s face it, they are customers and you are a business! Therefore, you have to make a better connection between the online and the physical, the digital and the in-person. You have to have such a good footprint online that people would want to visit and connect with you in person, and follow up and stay in touch with you, and spread the word about how great you are. So many institutions are fearful of change. But instead of fearing that, embrace it and ask, “How can we have a better social media strategy? How do we engage with the audience?" If you don’t matter in people’s lives, you are going to fade away.

How are museums, say, The Met or the Louvre Abu Dhabi, using technology to engage modern viewers?

The Louvre Abu Dhabi wants social media built into the DNA of everything it is doing. So, for instance, when the acquisition of Leonardo’s (da Vinci) Salvator Mundi happened, it was announced on Twitter instead of a 15-page press release. So they are experimenting. In terms of display, they have strategically placed screens (shown above) in different areas in the galleries, which, I think, brings the art alive in a way we are not used to necessarily seeing. These screens can show you detail, give information or give you context that you couldn’t get earlier. For instance, there are screens that have timelines which show historical context you can’t get with just the art work.

However, that doesn’t mean that every object should have a screen. You have to experiment; you have to find a new way of telling the story and a new way of constantly engaging your audience.

One of the interns at the Met MediaLab, for instance, came up with the idea of a Chrome browser extension which can be easily downloaded. It is called “Meow Met". Once you’ve installed that, every time you open a new browser window, you get to view a new cat from The Met’s digital collection in the form of a painting or a sculpture. That’s absolutely brilliant because then, as a museum, you are becoming a part of people’s lives, especially when they are not thinking about going to The Met.

Digital screens at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Courtesy: Sree Sreenivasan

What are some of the tools which are changing the way we view art ?

While I feel that virtual reality is important, augmented reality (AR) is even more important because, through it, you can give people extra information that they can’t get in other ways. For instance, you can point at a picture (with your phone) and AR will be able to tell you so much more than what you will read in a label or an audio guide, because visually you can take in a lot more information faster.

In terms of navigation, San Francisco MoMA is doing something really interesting with how audio guides work. The problem with audio guides is that you are always looking down because you are figuring how and where to go next. And what they’ve done is that you can keep the audio guide in your pocket, and it tells you when to turn left or turn right without you having to look down. So that kind of “way-finding" in museums is going to continue to be a big thing.

Do you think apps might destroy the traditional culture of physically going to museums?

This is not a new discussion. The Met’s first website was launched in 1995—that’s three years before Google and one year before The New York Times’ website. At that time, people were scared because they thought, “Well, if you put everything online, no one is going to go to the museum." As a result, The Met’s website had very little information. Now, the same question has surfaced again, where people say, “Well, if you spend so much money on an app, no one will go to the museum." But when I was at The Met, we managed to increase our physical attendance every year and we extended our digital audience exponentially. So no one can say that one experience cannibalized the other.

The other thing is how to engage young people today. Millennials are constantly looking for new experiences—things that they can talk excitedly about with their friends. For instance, there is something called a Skywalk in the Grand Canyon, which is a giant bridge-like “U" sticking out, over the Canyon. Now, I will not be going on it because I am a scaredy-cat, but my kids will love it and would want to participate. And that’s what museums can do—they can make certain things so exciting, digitally, that the millennials will want to come see it in person, because today they are competing with Marvel and Star Wars. So they must know how to unleash the potential inside them.

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