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Tech Crash at Metropolitan Museum: “Digital Underground” Buried? UPDATED

While I’ve been distracted from blogging by mainstream-media assignments (one completed, the other in process), I’ve been itching to weigh in on several important museum developments.

Let’s start with Metropolitan Museum President Daniel Weiss‘ tough-love strategies to address the shocking financial crisis that he inherited. Museum digerati may disagree, but I welcome the indications (not yet confirmed to me by the museum’s press office) that the money-saving cutbacks may include the closing of the museum’s run-amok MediaLab, which I’ve previously criticized.

Here’s an example of its handiwork:

Mashup by Jonathan Monaghan of Jacques Sarazin’s “Leda and the Swan” and Balthasar Permoser’s “Marsyas”

Mashup by Jonathan Monaghan of Jacques Sarazin’s “Leda and the Swan” and Balthasar Permoser’s “Marsyas”

In the most detailed account I’ve seen of the Met’s finance-driven cutbacks, Jennifer Smith of the Wall Street Journal noted that 34 employees are being laid off, in addition to the 57 who took voluntary retirement buyouts (some of whom will be replaced, presumably at lower salary). The Met’s press office (where I have further queries still pending) confirmed to me that Smith’s account is accurate. The story of the latest staff cuts was broken by my fellow ArtsJournal blogger, Judith Dobryzynski.

There’s no sign at this writing on the Met’s Digital Underground blog or the MediaLab homepage that the MediaLab is defunct (or about to be). But I caught wind of the likely change in this tweet from its founding senior manager (who left in August 2015), Don Undeen:

Then I saw that Marco Castro Cosio, who succeeded Undeen, wrote this on his Instagram feed:

I have been asked to step down from my role as manager of @metmedialab @metmuseum, due to budget cuts, starting Friday 9/30.

Marco Castro Cosio

Marco Castro Cosio

Here’s how the MediaLab had defined its functions. Maybe I don’t sling the lingo, but this doesn’t make sense to me, in terms of either clarity of expression or relevance to the Met’s core mission:

The MediaLab is a Digital Research and Development hub at the Met that explores, probes, pilots, and prototypes emerging technologies and design systems within the Museum’s narrative ecosystem. Our mission is to imagine the possible futures of museums and culture.

We untangle, explore, present, and share our research in the following areas:

—Reality studies
—Hybrid presence
—Collaborative experiences

A high-profile victim of the digital staff purge, Sree Sreenivasan, the museum’s first chief digital officer, was let go in June and is now New York City’s chief digital officer. I suspect (and hope) that other Met techies will similarly land on their feet.

In his blog post three years ago, Introducing the Media Lab, Undeen wrote: “It’s a wonderful time to be a technologist in a museum.” Now, perhaps, not so much. The MediaLab has become an extraneous luxury that the Met can ill afford.

UPDATE: The Met’s press office issued this non-response to my query about whether the MediaLab was being eliminated:

The Digital Department was included in the departments that had layoffs. Organizational changes in the Media Lab and Digital will be explained more fully in the coming weeks.

I am strongly in favor of user-friendly technological innovations that enrich the public’s appreciation and understanding of a museum’s collections and exhibitions. But as I mentioned in my Wall Street Journal article on the major technological transformation of another art museum—the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—a “shift the balance of interpretive power from the art experts to the digerati [can have] troubling consequences….The balance of power needs to be readjusted, so that technological enhancements are always in service to the curatorial mission, never the other way around.”

I’m guessing that Dan Weiss, who brought to the Met presidency an art historical as well as business and managerial background, may see things the same way.

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