Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Museum Hack: We Love People Who Don’t Like Museums

The peer-to-peer economy is great at uncovering unmet consumer demand and unused aspects of institutional resources. For this reason, I recently tracked down a young entrepreneur who has found, and filled, an empty niche in the ecology of museum experiences. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a huge cadre of volunteers staffing a Guided Tour Program. I wanted to know, why would people visiting the Met, (or the American Museum of Natural History) hire an outside tour guide? What ‘unmet consumer demand’ paves the way for his business to succeed?

My name is Nick Gray, and I’m the founder of Museum Hack. We are a band of passionate, renegade tour guides in New York City.

Museum Hack wants to appeal to the cynics, the bored, the apathetic. They were the ones that failed to be impressed or to fall in love the first time around, and we’re here for the rebound.

We love people who don’t like museums.

I was one of those people. Until a few years ago, my attitude towards museums was one of ambivalence and boredom. About three years ago, a beautiful woman took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As she showed me her favorite works, I fell in love... with the Met. The history, the humanity and the excitement came alive for me.

On weekends, away from my day job at my family’s aircraft electronics business, I started to give free tours of the Met to my friends. I showed my favorite objects, and I spoke in plain English. My friends loved it. They told their friends, and their friends told friends, and soon I had over 1,000 people on my waiting list to join a free tour. I started dedicating more of my time to creating what would ultimately become Museum Hack. In April 2013, I left my job and began working on this full-time.

As my company and staff grew, so did the personalities behind our presentations. At

Photo credit: Museum Hack
Museum Hack, we hire individuals who love museums and who love art, artifacts and objects. Their backgrounds and strengths draw from numerous experiences - not just the art world. By using guides who are knowledgeable and also able to connect with the humanity in both the works and the audience, we are able to give our clients an experience focused on the delightful, the hilarious and the human in art - in all its sexy, juicy detail! The art, the artifacts and the objects blossom in front of our eyes, and the museum becomes a playground for provoking questions, ridiculous activities and an awful lot of laughter.

Our audience is the 20- and 30-year olds who went on museum field trips when they were kids, and maybe have taken a docent tour or two, but now they want a fresh perspective. This is the generation that can pull up Wikipedia articles on famous works of art faster than you can say the artist’s name. They are constantly bombarded by up-to-the-minute information and endless options for entertainment. They are obsessed with their phones and social media. We speak to that generation; we bring social media, selfies and photos into our tours and then we make them fun and unique.

Our success is built on word-of-mouth recommendations, a testimonial to the effectiveness of making the museum more accessible and exciting. One of my favorite comments was from a man in his mid-50s from Long Island, New York: “I’d rather go shopping with my wife than go to a museum, and I hate shopping. But then I took a Museum Hack tour and now I love the Met. We are going to come back to the museum together, and I love it!”

Museum Hack has created specialized thematic tours, in addition to our famous un-Highlights Tour. We also do bachelorette parties, birthday parties, corporate team building events, and family tours. The diversity of the tours has given us access to a broader audience and has helped shift the focus of our tours from didactic teaching to communal discovery.

PBS NewsHour on Museum Hack, with commentary by
The Met's Sandra Jackson-Dumont

Many museums that have great things to offer are looking for new ways to involve their communities. I think they could learn from the techniques Museum Hack has discovered that are effective at engaging our audiences:
  • We make art social. Our tours are small and customized to participants’ interests. Our goal is to help them interact with the objects on display and each other. Have an opinion!  Snap a selfie with what you like, and tell us why! 
  • We present research-based facts using polished storytelling skills, games, humor, and passion.
  • We use people’s love of social media. Encouraging people to use their phone cameras sharpens the way they look at objects. It’s a fatigue-fighter and encourages that they commit to an opinion and share it.
  • We walk fast. Instead of focusing deeply on three to six works in an hour, we visit more than ten, chosen by the guide, based on their passion.
  • We play. We use games to keep the energy level high and the intimidation level low.
  • We are sassy. We like spunk and personality.
  • We aren’t afraid to cuss. Tony Robbins taught me about using shocking language intentionally; he takes his lead from Sigmund Freud. Robbins writes, “Freud discovered that in every culture there are words which are considered taboo: words that are rarely spoken aloud, but, when they are, produce a dynamic transformation...”  We believe it also gives people permission to be themselves.
  • We switch up voices. Museum Hack tours often have co-hosts join the guide to add a second voice. Sometimes we even swap tour guides mid-tour, just to add to the energy and unpredictability. 
VIP Night Tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo credit: Museum Hack

A lot of people (like my former self) don’t love museums, or like them in a mild way, but not enough to actually go visit. And I suspect that their numbers are on the rise—that would be a bad thing for museums, and for our society. Good museums enliven our curiosity, feed us beauty and wonder. People who work at museums are experimenting with new ways to make people fall in love (with museums), but entrepreneurs working in the private sector have a lot to offer as well. Museum Hack recognizes that we have barely tapped the surface when it comes to opening up conversations about how to make museums more appealing to those who don’t like museums. We want to bring our methods and techniques all across the nation. We want everyone to love museums!

We are Museum Hack and we think Museums Are Fucking Awesome.

This post was written by Nick Gray with “lots of editing and editorial help” from Michelle Yee at Museum Hack.


Angela Killpack said...

This is a fantastic idea, to have tour guides that speak to the common museum-going person! There are some museums that have spoken to me and others that haven't. I know that type of person though, that doesn't like museums! Is Museum Hack all over the country? http://www.pem.org/about/mission_vision

Caitlin L. said...

How do the museums you give tours at view your group and tours? It feels like a museum that's struggling to maintain a diverse audience (or has been uninterested in engaging them) might not react positively to someone else giving tours. I'm curious about how that relationship works, or if there is one at all.

What's fascinating about this in general is that exhibit techniques wouldn't necessarily need to change for reaching different audiences. You can have exactly the same room or wing or floor - you may just need the right type of interpretation to make an impact.

Charles Carreras said...

What I am thinking is reaching out to younger audiences. The 20-40 year olds. Right now our audience is more likely to be retired. Some great ideas for small town museums.