Museum Hack: Letting the Right Ones In

Last Saturday, I went on two Museum Hack tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Combined, this experience took a total of five hours. That sounds pretty hardcore, even by my museum geek standards, but the time flew by and I loved every minute of it. The company is a relatively young start-up that offers high-energy, entertaining and subversive museum tours. It’s an approach ideally suited to adults who were dragged around museums as children and consequently assume that tours must be boring, tiring and didactic. As with a number of the other organisations that I’ve visited on this trip, Museum Hack understands that offering positive social experiences is a fundamental aspect of audience engagement. Who doesn’t enjoy spending time with friends and family, having a laugh and doing something a bit different together on a Saturday evening? Museum Hack has successfully identified a gap in the market and then developed a strong product to meet that need. They’re going great guns too – the company is expanding at an extraordinary rate.

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PixCell-Deer #24, 2011, by Kohai Nawa. Mixed media; taxidermied deer with artificial crystal glass

I started with the Un-Highlights Tour, which promised not to show me all the usual things, but to offer a personal, alternative introduction instead. We were a group of nine (four couples and me, the lemon) and our guide Evan was funny, knowledgeable, and engaging. He’s also an artist and his love for the Met was obvious – we were definitely getting a tour from a big fan. One of the first objects we saw was a huge Roman sarcophagus, unfinished and never used for its intended purpose. It’s nothing much to look at, but it’s interesting because it was the very first object to enter the Met’s collection. Its reference number is 70.1, because it was the first object purchased in the year of the museum’s founding in 1870. That’s cool. The entire tour was driven by storytelling, the cornerstone of the Museum Hack approach, and was filled with all sorts of interesting snippets and factoids. It wasn’t all one-way traffic either; there were little challenges and tasks along the way that encouraged us to talk with each other and explore galleries in the museum that we may have otherwise walked straight through. I looked, I laughed, I played – all great fun.

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These lovely objects weren’t included on the tours, but I couldn’t resist sharing them.

In the evening, I joined a VIP tour – I knew it was fancy because my name tag was a silver sticker instead of the usual matt white. We were a group of 13 (six couples and me, the gooseberry) and we had two guides: Ethan, who has been with the company from almost the beginning and leads on the continuing professional development (CPD) side of the business; and Charlotte, who is newer and had more of a supporting role, although she did lead some sections of the tour. It was a 6pm kick-off and we were booted out as the museum was closing at 9pm; I really couldn’t tell you where those three hours went. At some point, the sun had set and the spotlit sculptures looked stunning, especially with the dark sky and Manhattan architecture, visible through the large windows and skylights, forming a dramatic backdrop. All of this was nicely capped off with a glass of red wine, provided as part of the tour – they know us so well.

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The Temple of Tendur, from Egypt, Nubia, West bank of the Nile River, 50 miles South of Aswan, Roman Period, 10th century B.C.

Every Museum Hack tour is different because the guides tailor the experience to the group. Fairly early on, there was an ice-breaker exercise where we briefly introduced ourselves. This wasn’t just to bond as a group, although that was useful too, but to give the guides a sense of our interests and world views. For example, if someone in the group comes from the financial sector, then anecdotes would be skewed towards the value of objects or other money-related tales. If there were museum types on the tour (apparently that happens), then there would be some juicy art history nuggets thrown in to keep us happy too. It shows how nimble and well-trained the guides are, and probably plays a big part in keeping their storytelling fresh and immediate.

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The Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing. Facade: Martin E Thompson’s Branch Bank of the United States (1822-24), originally located at 15 1/2 Wall Street in New York City.

So that was my Saturday. On Sunday, I hijacked Ethan’s afternoon for an interview and we had a really great, wide-ranging conversation about the ‘Museum Hack way’ and associated topics. I was hugely impressed by the creativity and hard work that he pours into his role. Ethan loves museums, and he loves the objects in museums, and he really wants others to discover museums and love them as much as he does. Museum Hack is quite a controversial prospect in some circles, not least because it’s seen to be treading on the territory of established museum learning departments, and their subversive spirit has been interpreted as cavalier. However, I was happy to discover just how rigorous and systematic Museum Hack is in its training, planning and programming. Ethan and his colleague, Kate have formalised the key elements of what makes a Museum Hack tour, and trainee guides have a huge amount to learn before they can deliver to a group in such a way that suggests they’ve just rocked up for a chat. Like all good guides, the hard work is hidden beneath a lot of practice and preparation.

I chose Museum Hack as a case study because I find it fascinating that a company outside the museum sector can come in and have such an impact. Moreover, they have museums eager to hire them as consultants to inject their particular brand of energy and entertainment into adult programming. Shifting the focus from them (Museum Hack)  to us (museum educators) for a moment, why aren’t we already doing this for ourselves? I like a bit of healthy competition and I’m glad they’ve thrown down the gauntlet; it means that we have to raise our game. Granted, being subversive is easier when you are external to an organisation, rather than a cog in its machinery; however, there is nothing to stop us from looking again at the format of our key programmes and rethinking them. Tours, talks and workshops are the basic building blocks of museum learning programming and there can be a risk of sinking into the deep wheel-ruts of established approaches. Tours can be done differently and can attract new audiences – Museum Hack have demonstrated that. So what else can we be doing differently? What else can we adapt to respond to contemporary audience need?

Header image: The Arms and Armour Galleries

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