High-tech gadgets are neat, but so was life before web pages and mobile apps.
Sree Sreenivasan, longtime lover of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, knows this; he’s familiar with pre-Internet creative expression spanning thousands of years. As the Met’s chief digital officer, he also knows the value of communication through social media. Perhaps this is why the co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) and former full-time professor at Columbia Journalism School describes himself as a tech skeptic and evangelist. One thing’s certain: the man is good with expression.
SkilledUp’s “Fearless Careers” podcast host Ander Frischer made the trek from San Francisco to New York City, where he sat down with Sree. This is what they talked about:
At the Met, people can witness the full range of human creativity — around 5 thousand years’ worth of it, Sree said, with each world culture represented. So much in one place allows people to notice, for example, “that ancient Roman goblet, how that connects to something that was done by a European master,” he said.
There are other meaningful connections to make. The Met already has three locations in New York. As chief digital officer, Sree is responsible for creating a fourth: the digital space. His job, he said, is to “make the connection between the physical and the digital, the in-person and the online, and I believe that all businesses have to think about that connection.”
Win the war
What does it mean to create a digital location? For one, “make the digital experience at the Met so exciting that people will want to get on a plane and come to New York and visit us,” Sree said. Then, follow that up with such a memorable in-person experience that the visitor feels compelled to stay in touch through social media.
“And if we can make that happen,” he said, “then we will be successful in today’s world because the fact is, we’re all in a war for attention.”
You get what you give
The Met has a large team devoted to this digital media side — 70 people large, Sree said. That may seem like a lot. But, “if you’re going to make digital as important as the physical, then you’ve got to give as much attention as you possibly can,” he said.
At the Met, it’s no surprise that it’s all about the art.
“If you have something that’s 4 thousand years old, you don’t want to think about it for the next decade, you want to think about the next 4 thousand years. How is it going survive and thrive?” Sree said. “My colleagues don’t think in quarters or years or even decades. They think in centuries.”
No path is the same
“I told my parents, when I was 12 years old I wanted to be a journalist and, being good Indian parents, they started crying immediately,” Sree said. Sree’s father worked as a diplomat for the Indian Foreign Service. “They wanted, you know, a doctor or engineer… something like that. Or, because my dad was a diplomat, they would have loved for me to be a diplomat as well.”
“I was born in Tokyo. My father had no problem picking me out in the window. He said, ‘The brown one is mine!’ We lived there, then we lived in Bhutan – the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Then we lived in the Soviet Union at the height of communism and I spoke fluent Russian and was a good communist and I used to come home saying, ‘Lenin is god.’ And then eventually I ended up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, saying, ‘John Lennon is god.’ I went to public school in New York and became a good capitalist.”
If you are in love…
It was this move to New York that solidified what Sree calls his “30-year one-way love affair with the Met.” He lived four blocks away and went to school one block away. His teacher, Dorothy Donovan, used her own resources to expose him and his classmates to the museum. She “would insist that we must go to the Met every week and so she would drag us there, not just for art — history, politics, math, science…”
“And then 30 years later when the Met came calling…” he said. “If you are in love with somebody for 30 years and she calls you, you gotta take the call.”