Digital technology holds the promise of big global audiences for world-famous institution…
Billions of people, that is. The famous museum isn’t driven by financial motives, but rather seeks to reach and inspire individuals no matter where they might be located. The answer to a massively expanded reach can be found in digital technologies – and Loic Tallon, chief digital officer of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York, has a simple, yet brilliant approach to doing it.
“In the past, The Met’s audience was defined by those people who could visit the museum building in Manhattan, New York City. Today, digital technologies enable us to think globally about our audiences: we can develop a global impact in a scalable and sustainable way,” he told iStart.
If you thought this meant diving headlong into the pool of virtual reality, augmented reality and any one of multiple other buzzwords associated with digital transformation…you’d be wrong. “There are some 3.9 billion people connected to the internet and I believe we have at least one artwork in The Met’s collection which could inspire each one of those individuals. Enabling those 3.9 billion connections; that is my goal,” Tallon related.
The Met has some serious chops. Founded in 1870, it was originally located at 681 Fifth Avenue. Soon after, The Met moved to the historic building at 1000 Fifth Avenue, where it has remained to this day. It is the largest art museum in the USA, the third most visited art museum in the world (behind the Louvre in Paris, and – perhaps surprisingly – the National Museum of China) and it attracts over 7 million in-the-flesh visitors every year.
Tallon is delivering a keynote address at the CIO Summit, taking place in Auckland on 13-14 June, 2018. It’s not his first visit to New Zealand: ten years ago, Tallon was in New Zealand, studying the digitisation projects of the Auckland Museum, Te Papa and the Christchurch Art Gallery.
Before explaining how he is executing on this vision, Tallon shed some light on why The Met has a CDO. “For any organisation, the CDO is responsible for leading the digitisation of practices, processes and projects, and harnessing the opportunities that digital technology offers. The Met is no different. The Museum’s mission is to collect, study, conserve and present significant works of art across all times and cultures and connect people to creativity, knowledge and ideas; the building was the main tool to do that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”
The game has changed completely with digital technology. “It gives us the ability to dream in new ways about how best to serve The Met’s mission, and to create impact with audiences that are orders of magnitude beyond what was possible before. We can, theoretically, reach out and connect every one of those 3.9 billion internet-enabled people to The Met’s collection.”
He pointed out that the raison d’etre of The Met is not, like most commercial organisations, to turn a profit. “Instead, it is to connect people with knowledge, creativity and ideas through artworks. There arises the question of how to create a meaningful connection between audiences and works of art online, one that is comparable to the experience of being in front of an artwork in the galleries.”
Does that mean digital technology can be used in the gallery to augment exhibitions and artefacts? That may seem an obvious opportunity, but Tallon doesn’t believe this is necessary or even desirable. “We receive wonderful feedback about the quality of the in-museum experience [it is rated 4.8 out of 5 on Google Reviews]. I’m a big believer in focusing on your biggest opportunity, and for us, that’s online, rather than augmenting the in-gallery experience. I want us to also be very careful not to use technology for technology’s sake, especially inside the museum. The gallery experience is what our visitors come for, not the technology.”
“The gallery experience is what our visitors come for, not the technology.”
He also seeks simplicity rather than complexity. This is best demonstrated in the approach taken to sharing The Met’s awesome collection. “Instead of making our users come to us – our website – we want to go to where they are already. This is how we use social media, Wikipedia, Google, Pinterest. While we have over 30 million visitors to our own website, the goal isn’t only to drive that number up. Our mission is create connections: to do that we want to put our collection on the sites that people already use.”
To enable this strategy, The Met recently released all images of public domain artworks in the collection under Creative Commons Zero, making the images available free of copyright. “This means that our audiences are free to use, reuse and remix images of over 300,000 artworks in The Met’s collection with no restriction.”
It almost seems radical. Tallon doesn’t think so. Nor, he added, does his board. “It comes back to how best to use the tools available to us today to fulfil the Museum’s mission.”
Measuring the success of this approach is not easy. “We can look at impact across the major platforms like Wikipedia and Pinterest, but there are many instances where audiences are engaging with The Met’s collection on a third-party platform which we aren’t aware of. But that doesn’t undermine the approach, I think it actually validates it – and when one of these comes across my radar with an unusual use, it is very motivating.”
There’s another organic measure, however. Does the ‘digital openness’ practiced by The Met drive more foot traffic? Tallon thinks differently about that question. “You have to ask, in the twenty-first century, is a museum just a building? If we believe that The Met can fulfil its mission both on site and in the digital space – and we do believe that – we need to move away from attendance as the sole measure of success. That said, with the reach of digital, the brand and collection is more accessible and discoverable than ever. You wouldn’t dare go to Paris and skip the Louvre. My ambition is to make it so that people wouldn’t dare to come to New York and not visit The Met.”
In case you’re interested, William the Hippopotamus depicted harks back to the Egyptian “Middle Kingdom” circa 1961-1878 B.C. (yes that’s B.C.). Find out more here: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544227
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