The Met’s Goldmine of Data Assets

The Metropolitan Museum of Art aka “the Met” in New York City is the third most visited museum in the world. Established in 1870, the Met has accumulated a collection of over 2 million artifacts housed in 2.2 million square feet of space. In this blog post, we explore how the Met, as the sentinel standing watch over 5000 years of art, uses data to make “highbrow” art that was historically only within the purview of the cultural elites, accessible to all.

How does the Met use data as an asset to create and capture value?

Open Access Initiative

In early 2017, the Met made 406,000 digital images of its collection in the public domain available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 license [1]. Essentially, this meant that the Met waived all rights to the images under copyright law, allowing anyone to use the images as they saw fit.

While it may sound counterintuitive that making the images freely available would help the Met capture any value, tangible benefits have arisen as the result of the Open Access Initiative.

The Met benefited from a significant increase in unpaid online marketing. Following the release of the images, there was a 5x increase in the use of the Met’s images featured in Wikipedia images. While there is no obligation give the Met attribution under the CC0 1.0 license, doing so is expected according the Wikipedia’s norms.

In addition, the Open Access Initiative has led to the increased user engagement in unexpected ways. By democratizing access to high quality images of its collection, the Met empowered the public to build upon the works of history’s most celebrated artists. For example, graphic designer Jen Lewis started Face-Swap The Met, a tongue-in-cheek twitter feed of digital collages in which faces were substituted for one another in famous paintings.


Face-swap the Met (Credit: Jen Lewis, @artfaceswaps)

Another example is Artwork of the Day, which uses artificial intelligence to showcase a daily artwork that is relevant to a person’s environment by using location, weather, news and historical data as model inputs [2].

Thus, by opening the digital library of its public collection, the Met was able to capture the imagination of the internet, generate organic traffic to its website, and thereby ensure that its brand remains relevant in the minds of the digital-native millennials and Gen Z.

However, we would be remiss not to consider the self-cannibalization impact of the Open Access Initiative. Will people, now with access to the digital library, refrain from visiting the Met? In all likelihood, the answer is no. Often, seeing the original works in person awakens a sense of awe and reverence, a markedly different experience than seeing the digital versions. If anything, the digital library might inspire people to visit the museum to see the works for themselves.

The Met App

The Met launched the public beta version of its visitor map in March 2016. As part of its long term roadmap, the Met is building a Locations API. This API will serve as the central interface that links the digital library with the visitor map on the Met App. The grand vision, as explained by Loic Tallon, Chief Digital Officer, is to link the API with Google or Apple maps. In doing so, the Met will be able to dynamically curate visitors’ experiences as they walk through the museum.

While the Met has been silent on the data collection aspect of this project, it would not take a stretch of the imagination to see the benefits of collecting time series data of the visitors’ geospatial coordinates during their visits. With such data, the Met will be able to achieve the holy grail of customer research – knowing exactly how their customers interact with the products, or in this case, the exhibits. The Met would be able rank exhibits by popularity, analyze customer preferences against user meta data and perhaps even change the layout of the museum to optimize around visitors’ walking patterns.

The Met App (Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City)

Challenges and opportunities

By far the most obvious challenge in using data for the Met is collecting it. The Met has been meticulous in cataloging its works, turning them into high fidelity data assets. However, such work is tedious and relies on the manual effort of its staff.

In an effort to find a more scalable method of cataloging its backlog of over 1.3 million objects, the Met hosted a data science competition on [3]. Currently, staff subject matter experts add data labels such as artist, title and period to each digitalized work. However, these annotations contain a lot of noise because different labels may have similar meanings. By harnessing the power of open source and data science, the Met hopes to be able to find an elegant standard for annotating its digital library.



[1] 2019. Metmuseum.Org.

[2] 2019. Metmuseum.Org.

[3] “Imet Collection 2019 – FGVC6 | Kaggle”. 2019. Kaggle.Com.


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Student comments on The Met’s Goldmine of Data Assets

  1. That’s really cool! I’ll go through the exhibitions over the weekend, definitely!

    I think this case returns us to the question of what is the goal of a museum. If it’s to exibit art to the public – that’s probably the most effective and efficient way.
    The governance structure of MET is somewhat vague, but it doesn’t look like a money-making enterprise, so it’s a great fit.

  2. I think this is a fascinating use of data to democratize fine art without diminishing its inherent value. The use cases are quite compelling not only for art curation and preservation, but for enhancing patron experience and maintaining its relevance to younger generations – to Theon’s point, the Met has been having its share of financial struggles. I am curious to know how the Met labeling art for a digital catalog library opens up opportunities for how we can study art and its evolution over time! What aspects of it can be quantified and measured in a way that allow us to uncover patterns not already apparent?

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Keagan! I completely agree with you that by democratizing the masterpieces via the power of digital tools, the Met would not cannibalize museum visits but probably only increase visitor traffic. It’s a truly smart marketing strategy empowered by social media. It just opens more possibilities for people – including those who weren’t museum goers – to engage with fine art in a more interactive way. I’m actually wondering if other top museums in the world are doing something similar now, or is it just the Met at the moment?

  4. Interesting post! My undergraduate degree was in art history and I love museums, but they have their own issues to overcome as well. One of these issues, especially for an institution like the Met, is the fact that there is simply not enough space to display more than a small fraction of their prodigious collection. This is a problem for the museum, but an even bigger problem for the public who is deprived of these great works, hidden away in the basement vaults. Digitizing the collection of the museum is definitely an excellent step towards a solution, since it not only makes the collection visible but also easily searchable, much more accessible overall. Speaking to the issue of tracking visitors in the museum, I would love to hear more on this. Perhaps there is privacy concern, but I think some very interesting work could come out it.

  5. Thanks for sharing this – an interesting post! Having lived in New York for 9 years, I would go to the Met often, especially when they had new exhibitions. While I understand the concept of tracking consumer behavior, and thus using data to cater to their needs, I feel that there’s a fine balance in doing this. While you want to make sure you’re putting exhibits that are relevant to the consumer, part of the role of an institution like the Met is to preserve and protect artistic ideologies and principles. I see this industry as somewhat separate from other consumer products, in that it is a catalog of the pinnacle or artistic achievement. The ordinary consumer will not be an expert, but more of a casual enthusiast. Taking an extreme example, if a Monet exhibit does not get many views, does it then mean that it should be removed in favor an exhibit with more traffic, say one of the fashion at the Met gala? While I like the idea, I would caution against overly relying on data in this very esoteric industry.

  6. Excellent post, Keagan!

    In addition to art democratization, I believe that digitization of art may have other desirable consequences –
    – Data-driven curation. As Jackson mentioned above, museums expend many valuable resources over the curation of their collection, which is a constantly ongoing process and is driven almost purely by the curator’s intuition and experience. Using data to automatically curate and funnel relevant art from their expansive archives to users’ eyeballs will help the museums generate greater value for the user.
    – Pervasion of art into social media. The stock images market is valued at several billion dollars today and is rapidly growing. Democratizing art will likely allow the stock images market to more fully consume and build a synergistic relationship with art, thereby benefiting both aficionados of art and users of stock images.
    – Motivating a younger global generation of artists. When art is on social media, more millennials can experience, and be empowered and motivated by art. The global reach of social media can also be extremely powerful in drawing more prospective artists from around the world.

  7. I love this post! I had no idea that Met had developed this capability. First, I think it has huge benefits to democratize are and make it more accessible. However, I think the biggest benefit of it lies in the fact that this is another step in the direction of digital art – both consumption and creation. Concretely, there has been a rising niche of artists using new medium to create their art: the iPad. Some of iPad’s applications allow creators to produce work that is not accessible through other media. Having MET join the “digital art” space, provides a big positive push and legitimization of this developing phenomemon!

  8. This is a really interesting example of an older, some might say dated, system gets a facelift through data. As mentioned, since the goal of the Met isn’t necessarily to generate tons of revenue, it poses an interesting opportunity. I wonder if other museums are doing this and would love to hear more about if the creators of the art (for those still alive) take issue with digital representations

  9. I love this topic, thank you for sharing! It has been a recuring conversation in my anthropology classes, how does art becomes iconic? I am sure that the MET was well aware of the effect circulation and reproduction would have on the pieces’ aura. After all, that’s how Mona Lisa got the attention she has now.

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