Internet Or Die Interview

Anne Dunleavy,
Sr. Managing Editor, Digital, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

With a collection that spans millennia and comes from around the globe, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has been a cultural giant since its founding in 1870. But it definitely isn’t stuck in the past: We spoke with Anne Dunleavy on how The Met is using the Internet to inspire larger audiences and build an appreciation for art across the world.

The possibilities of what art can be meets 5,000+ years of history at The Met. With popular sites and blogs, The Met has managed to stand apart in a big way online. What went into these decisions to extend The Met’s presence digitally?

Approximately 6.7 million people visited one of The Met’s three physical locations—The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Breuer, and The Met Cloisters—this past year, and we had 33 million visits to our website. We’re very conscious of the fact that most of our online visitors may never have a chance to come to the Museum. So our website and other digital platforms allow us to reach a much larger audience, and open up the collection to people from around the world, who may be searching for information about a specific artwork or artist or just looking for inspiration.
Our blogging program launched in 2007 with a single blog and has since grown to 10 active blogs on a range of subjects with posts authored by hundreds of staff members across the Museum. Since we launched our searchable hub page for all of that blog content in 2013, we’ve seen an exponential growth in readership; this really reflects people’s desire for rich stories, authoritative perspectives, and greater access to arts and culture. It’s truly been a pleasure to think up new ways to bring art into people’s lives through digital and to show how it can be relevant to anyone.

(Outside The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Outside The Metropolitan Museum of Art

What’s your strategy for telling stories on the Internet, and how have digital advances in the past 5 years changed the kinds of stories The Met can tell?

For one thing, we’ve had real traction with behind-the-scenes content. Significant work goes into the research and conservation of objects; the conception, design, and installation of exhibitions; and the production of everything else that we do here. Our goal is to tell as many of these behind-the-scenes stories as possible in order to enrich the experience of works of art for both our onsite and online visitors. For instance, we recently published a piece by our lead paintings conservator about the steps taken to conserve Velázquez’s Portrait of a Young Girl (now on view in the exhibition Velázquez Portraits: Truth in Painting), and this past summer, we posted a video of a team of riggers moving a monumental, three-ton sculpture of Athena through the galleries to its current location in the Great Hall.

Another area we’ve been exploring recently is 360° video; tomorrow we’re launching the fourth in a series of six videos shot with a spherical 360° camera that give visitors a whole new way to experience some of The Met’s iconic spaces. While the technology itself is fascinating (and the subject of a blog post by the director of the series), the most important aspect of the videos is that they allow us to offer visitors a level of access and a perspective typically unavailable to the public.

Last year, the people spoke: The Met won a Webby People’s Voice Award. Congrats! Do you have specific strategies for success when it comes to creating award-winning content?

Thank you! The most important thing you can do is play to your strengths. What are the stories that only you can tell, or that nobody can tell better? Once you’ve answered that question, you’ve found the space in which you can carve out a niche as an expert voice.

Also, and this might sound old-fashioned, but quality matters. All our rich online content, whether our blog content or the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, is fully edited before publication, and it makes a big difference. If you’re attentive to the details of editing and to the structure of a good story, you build credibility with your audience and enable them to dive right into the content. This approach applies to all types of content, including text, still imagery, video, and audio.

A third strategy is to engage multiple storytellers. At The Met, we don’t target just one online audience, and to that end, we don’t have a single storyteller or content stream. By allowing anyone around the Museum to contribute to our blogs, for instance, we’ve been able to reach a far broader range of people than we could with a single, institutional voice; our Teen Blog, written by teens for teens, and our Scientific Research blog content are just two examples.

The Internet changes so rapidly that it’s essential to keep innovating to stay relevant (hence our theme, “Internet Or Die”). How do you handle that pressure internally at The Met, and how do you keep up?

Our challenge is to use technology to make more of The Met’s incredible collection accessible and to show how art can be relevant to people’s daily lives. That’s really what motivates us, rather than being innovative for innovation’s sake.

The Met’s continued success on the Internet is a testament to the viral element of great art; the way it can affect someone even if they’re seeing it on their phone. What mission can The Met be said to be fulfilling, for itself and for its fans, by pushing the boundaries of the Internet?

Educating the public and encouraging the study of art have been core parts of the Museum’s mission since its founding in 1870. What’s new, however, are the ways in which people are consuming content. Because the world has gotten so much more mobile, we made the site responsive this past March as part of a larger website refresh project. It was important for us to meet people where they are and ensure our site works equally well across desktop computers, tablet, and smartphones. This allows our users to have easy access to our online collection wherever they are.

What’s your crazy future scenario of how The Met exists online? Think 10-20 years into the future, what would you like to be able to do with art on the Web that you can’t do now?

Ideally, 10 to 20 years from now, we will somehow have managed to reach everyone with an Internet connection, and all those people will have found a work of art on our site that inspires them or that creates a new level of understanding in their own lives or the lives of others. I think art has an incredible capacity to teach us about ourselves and other people and to connect us to each other. I don’t think there’s too much more we can hope for than that.

A big thanks to Anne for sharing her perspective. If you haven’t already, check out The Met website, where Anne and her team have put together world-class content (blogs, interactive timelines, and more) that extends the museum’s storied collection far beyond Fifth Avenue in NYC. You can also find The Met on Twitter.

Keep an eye out for more interviews with the rest of our Internet Or Die partners for the 21st Annual Webby Awards. And don’t forget, the Extended Entry Deadline is January 27th, 2017—Enter today!

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