In the Metropolitan Museum of Art at around 9am, curators are rushing off to their offices, workmen are making sure the thousands of light bulbs in the galleries are in operating order, and security guards are heading off to their posts. The museum technically doesn’t open its doors until 10, but to ensure that visitors have an experience as grand as the staircase leading up from the Great Hall, there’s lots of preparation that needs to be done daily.
I had the pleasure of taking a small group tour at this early hour yesterday with Sree Sreenivasan, the first chief digital officer for the museum, and saw firsthand this morning routine. (I also got the chance to see a wall of Van Goghs unobstructed by other guests, a bit of magic if there ever was.) He emphasized the vast collection housed at the Met; how you could be standing in front of one great work not realizing you’re standing next to yet another that’s quietly flying beneath the radar. Interestingly, he also talked up the digital possibilities that the museum is exploring.
Calling it one of many experiments* to build the “museum of tomorrow” he showed us how the Met used an app called Blippar to bring to life a Van Gogh painting called First Steps (you can see it in the photo on Sreenivasan’s Twitter page). With help from the app, a baby makes the wobbly journey from mom to dad implied in the still image. He also spent a good amount of time encouraging us to take photos to post on social media, reminded us about the hashtag for the tour (#EmptyMet) and offered tips for taking the best snapshots of all we saw. I took the pic above of the Temple of Dendur.
Sreenivasan has spoken before about the digital efforts at the institution. Speaking with Business Insider in September, he talked about the app that had just launched, the ones in the works and their recent Webby Award. And in The New York Times, he spoke about the outreach to audiences around the world, an interesting goal for an institution that was created with the expressed purpose of bringing people face-to-face with great art.
“For the Met, this added reach has a price: having to change old habits to cultivate and hold such a following,” the Times wrote. “The values of virality in this Buzzfeedian age and the values of traditional museum curating are, to put it tenderly, different values.”
Which is why the approach is clearly not simply to take pictures of the works-the paintings, the sculptures, the musical instruments, the ancient artifacts, the garments in the Costume Institute-and just post them online. The goal, as illustrated by the Blippar demonstration, is to create something new and uniquely digital that adds to what is on the Met’s floor. Still, you’re meant to feel inspired enough to be there in person.
To illustrate, the tweet below got Buzzfeed’s attention in November when Kim Kardashian’s Paper cover was all anyone could talk about. We saw it as part of the tour. You may be surprised to know it’s small, somehow seemingly delicate and literally thousands of years old. Standing in front of it is totally different from what you see here.
— The Met (@metmuseum) November 13, 2014
The Met’s efforts offer a great lesson to PRs and tech specialists trying to add a digital aspect to an event or campaign. Don’t go for the obvious only. Think in creative terms about what your brand has to offer to a digital audience and add a level of unexpected engagement. Maybe you too can break the internet.
*The article previously wasn’t clear about the fact that the use of Blippar was just one of the things that the museum is considering as part of its digital strategy. It’s been edited to express that.