Decades before he became Columbia University’s resident digital journalism sage, Sreenath Sreenivasan was just a kid growing up a stone’s throw from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, spending most of his time in the Ancient Playground in Central Park next door. Now, after creating the South Asian Journalists Association, founding DNAinfo.com, and spending 21 years mentoring a generation of journalists, Sreenivasan will be moving 34 blocks south to take up residence as the Met’s first chief digital officer. We checked in with Sree to find out how he plans to connect the physical and the digital in one of the most legendary institutions on the planet come August.
Sreenivasan says he first experienced the museum when his family moved into an apartment building on 89th and Madison. "My earliest memories are the Greek section at the Met and spending a lot of time there. We lived in a rich building, but we were the poorest family in it," Sreenivasan said. "I used to virtually live in the Ancient Playground, which is the name of the playground next to the Met at Central Park. We had a teacher who really took great advantage of being one block away. We’d be there almost weekly."
Sreenivasan visited the Met so often as a kid that he was even once accidentally featured in a program on Burmese television about a landmark Korean art exhibit. "One day my mom was watching television in Burma, and she starts screaming," Sreenivasan explained. "She was screaming because I was on TV, looking at an urn three years earlier. That’s the kind of connection I have to this museum. So I tell people when you’ve been in love with something for 30 years, when it calls you take the call. And with your wife’s permission you continue the conversation."
As for how he plans to bring more of the digital into the Met’s physical space, Sreenivasan admits that he’s still learning everything he possibly can about museums, and arriving with few preconceived notions about what needs to be done. Being a chief digital officer, he says, also means being a chief "listening" officer. "A lot of people are asking me for answers when I don’t know the questions yet. I am super, super excited about going in and in part learning about this world. I know it as a layperson—I know it as a parent of two 10 year olds that we take to the Met and other museums on a regular basis. I’m on a listening and learning tour that I hope to continue once I join," he says.
Still, one thing that fascinates the Met’s new CDO is the prospect of interactive storytelling embedded in the exhibits. "Part of it is to think about how do you get people to engage around things, especially at a place like the Met, which is so large and so rich," Sreenivasan says. "How do you get them to think about what they’ve just seen? That doesn’t necessarily have to be digital, by the way. There’s magic when you’re standing in front of a painting without anything around you. In some places you just need a paper sign, and in some places you need more ways you can engage and connect."
In addition to fostering connections with exhibits, Sreenivasan is also looking to connect more with the millions of New Yorkers and tourists who visit the Met each year. "Every day in New York City, or every week in New York City, tens of thousands of parents wake up and say, 'What should we do with the kids?'" Sreenivasan says. "And part of the success of an institution is you have to be one of the top 10 things they think of, and then one of the top 10 places they go. How do we find a way that, when that question is asked, you’re one of the answers?"
More mobile technology, more apps, and more social media initiatives are likely a given set of tasks for Sreenivasan. As for the physical experience of visiting the museum, he recommends taking breaks if you have kids, as well as mixing in the popular tourist items with more off-the-beat stops.
"Once you have children, you don’t control them as much as they control you. You kind of go where they want to go, and you end up trailing them more than anything else," he said.
Moving to the Met is an exciting, but bittersweet opportunity for Sreenivasan, who says he’s leaving the only professional home he’s ever really known. His father was skeptical of his 43-year-old son shifting careers, too—at first.
"One weekend, I took one of my more skeptical friends and my dad—who had just arrived from India who was jetlagged—to the Met on a Sunday. And my dad, an hour later said, 'You’ve got to come here,'" Sreenivasan said. "Once he spent enough time there he understood."
Still, Sree remains humbled and gracious about his decades spent a short distance uptown. "Every opportunity I’ve gotten is because of Columbia," Sreenivasan said. "And the two institutions are so classy—it’s a blessing to have them both in my life. I’m very, very blessed."