The art world press conference has very low stakes. Lives are not changed at these events. News of any great importance to public policy, foreign relations, or any general understanding of how life works is never broken. In fact, news of any great importance to the art world is only rarely broken. That said, the Metropolitan Museum’s press conference for their new app–called The Met–had all the ceremony of a State of the Union address.
“For the whole museum world, the transition from analog to digital is an enormous task,” said a presidential-looking Thomas P. Campbell, the Met’s director, from a podium in front of a large screen. (The screen said #METAPP in big white letters atop a pink background.) “In contrast to the commercial world, where there’s an imperative, you’ve got to digitize to survive, we’re all playing catch-up.”
Campbell introduced Sree Sreenivasen, the museum’s chief digital officer, who discussed “new initiatives” and said things like “Our Webby Award-winning Instagram” and “it’s already appeared on the app store as one of the best apps.” He then introduced the star of the evening, Loic Tallon, who has the incredibly alliterative title of “the Met’s Senior Mobile Manager.”
Young and bearded, he proceeded to give a veritable TED Talk on his creation.
“We asked people, ‘What are things a Met app must do?’” he said. “They told us three things: They want it to be useful. They want it to be simple. And they want it to be delightful.” He repeated: “Useful. Simple. Delightful.” These words appeared on the screen. “I construct everything I say for the next ten or fifteen minutes around those three words. Useful. Simple. Delightful.”
What is useful? Tallon asked. A new screen appeared, this one showing questions people frequently ask about the Met that the app would attempt to answer. Some of those questions include:
– What time does it close?
– What’s today?
– Inspire me?
– What’s that?
“Simple,” Tallon said, came with some help from “a very wonderful design company in Portland.” The goal, he said, was for the app to be able to answer any questions a user might have within 30 seconds. (A new slide was displayed that said “30 SECONDS” and included a clipart alarm clock.)
Tallon then demonstrated some of the app’s capabilites.
“Click on the menu button and that’s where you get our visitor services information: opening hours, how to get a ticket. For example, the main building is open until 5:30. If you select it, it will tell you opening times throughout the year. Telephone number, our address, you can click on that and it will take you right to Google Maps. All the questions you need answered to visit the museum right now. That’s actually the entire app.”
But we hadn’t even touched on “Delightful!” Tallon said his app’s “personality” was part of its delightfulness, and further defined the personality as “Conversational. Insider. Concise.” Also delightful is the app’s “highlights” section, which includes categorized walk-throughs of the Met’s collection. One of these is called “Met-staches” (featuring “the Met’s chorus of mustaches”). “Probably targeting our more Brooklyn audience,” Tallon said.
He then played a promotional video that featured inspirational piano music and people looking longingly at their Met apps. This included two young people (i.e. the “more Brooklyn audience”) sitting in a park and laughing eagerly at Met-staches. Then (after a fast edit) they are seen walking urgently around the Temple of Dendur.
Decidedly less useful, simple, or delightful was the question and answer period, the time at the art world press conference where veteran art journalists act as if they are White House correspondents and the president just ordered an airstrike. Things got tense pretty quick.
“Can you talk about some of the things you’re working on to improve the app in the future?” one gray-haired audience member asked.
“That’s a great question!” Tallon responded, opting for the high road. (“Focus groups” was more or less the short answer, but really—what an intense question! The thing has only existed for a day!)
Another query from one of our seasoned press conference attendees, this one asked with all the friendliness of a bad cop in an interrogation: “I’m interested in understanding a little bit more how you define the ‘Easter eggs,’” a woman wearing a kind of purple fisherman’s cap said, referring to the app’s “Art of the Day” feature, a daily highlight from the Met’s collection that probably falls under the delightful category. “Of course I know what they are. But having come from the New York Historical Society”—the name was announced as if it were an elite private club—“and seeing their Easter eggs, I’d like to understand yours.”
Tallon, once again keeping his cool: “You know, for us? The Easter egg is just something to make you smile. Something you weren’t expecting to find that would make you smile.”
“So it’s just a gimme?” the woman chortled. “For instance, as I said before, at the New York Historical Society”—again spoken like she was the only person allowed in—“there was the concept of beavers, which is symbolic of New York and New York’s Historical Society”—ditto—“and that put me on a scavenger hunt with my students that documents its relation to the history of New York.”
Tallon retorting to this stream of incoherence without a trace of irony: “Sounds lovely!”
“Will that be part of your Easter eggs?”
Moving on, but then another curveball from the audience! Who knew the presentation of a museum app brought out such a tough crowd?
“How are you tailoring the app to appeal to maybe an 8-year-old?”
Tallon: “We’re actually not trying to reach out to kids at this point. We see this as something for adults, effectively.”
Sreenivasen chimed in: “On kids, I just want to say that we’re going to be launching next year a project called ‘Hash Met Kids.’ This is bringing together for the first time a feature for by and about kids interacting with our art.”
One might think this particularly inquisitive crowd would raise concern over the mysterious origins of the name “Hash Met Kids.” No such question was asked.