At Museum Hack, we’re all about helping museum lovers and skeptics alike have a great time at the museum. We believe these spaces are for everyone — and anyone can find something to enjoy at these incredible institutions.
As you might expect, this goal presents a varied set of challenges — especially when a museum has a reputation for primarily engaging with a specific audience.
Take the American Museum of Natural History, for example. The general consensus, given its subject matter, is that AMNH is a “museum for kids.” A popular destination for school trips, many adults wouldn’t consider it a place they’d like to go to hang out with other adults.
In this case, our job is to show adults that AMNH is for them, too!
How do you appeal to more than your museum’s stereotypical “target audience?”
Work with it, not against it.
That “kid-friendly” reputation we were talking about? It can actually be a boon.
Exhibits featuring anthropology, dinosaurs, and science can sometimes feel less overwhelming and more accessible than priceless works of art — probably because most of us learned about anthropology, dinosaurs, and science in school!
However, because of that comfort level, adult museum guests don’t always walk away from the museum feeling excited about what they’ve seen. Because it’s already familiar, they don’t try to discover more.
On our tours at AMNH, it’s our job to make sure guests walk away with the same kind of experience they’d have with us at the Met or any of the other museums where we offer tours — high energy, high engagement, and high impact.
But how we do that?
Our tours at the Met and AMNH have the same end goal, but there are two very different paths to get there.
For people unfamiliar with art, our tours at the Met take something that can feel “out of reach” and make it relatable. Simply hearing stories about the art, subjects in paintings, and stories about the artists themselves can be enough to help our guests connect with pieces in the museum’s collection.
At AMNH, the subject matter is more “familiar” so we have to fight a little harder. We take a step beyond the kind of gossipy stories that we’d share with our guests at the Met. We delve into juicy, “behind the scenes” stories that many museum staff members don’t necessarily want to talk about. We curate content that’s still “adult” but catered toward the audience (which does sometimes include kids and teens). Stories like these stick because they’re not what people expect to hear.
So, what exactly do you talk about?
Most of our guides who tour at AMNH discuss Carl Akeley’s involvement in creating the museum’s many wildlife dioramas featuring real taxidermied animals.
Many museum tours don’t talk about it, and we feel it’s a missed opportunity! For us, these stories are a way to show off the tremendous effort and huge cost that went into acquiring these fascinating features of the museum’s collection, while also sharing insider-feeling information that our guests tell us they want.
On some of his tours, tour guide Zak M. will take guests to an exhibit of a cave carving labeled “Vulva or Hoofprint.”
It gets people thinking and talking about the idea that many artists in the prehistoric era used women as subjects for their art — or maybe even that the artists were women themselves. It’s also very unexpected. Stories like these still highlight prehistoric people and what they believed in, but do so in a racier way than museum guests might expect.
What you should do:
- Show stories in a different light. We’re not afraid to reveal the dirty side of things or discuss ethically gray areas in history. We talk about events throughout the last hundred years that might be uncomfortable to discuss, but are fascinating to learn about. Sharing stories about Carl Akeley’s wild expeditions for taxidermy acquisitions or gem heists in the museum’s history reveals the humanity of the museum and puts it in an adult context.
What you shouldn’t do:
- Intentionally alienate people. Our tour guides will tell stories about Carl Akeley’s expeditions, but they’ll frame these stories carefully. Our audiences are expecting an edgy, provocative experience, but that’s no good if you are intentionally alienating people. We can use these stories as a tool for something bigger, and use the “shock value” towards a greater good.
- Assume. Don’t assume that your guests are ready for the racier stories in your arsenal — but don’t assume that they’re not ready for that, either. Be careful about reading your audience, and be ready to push them. Building up and sharing the right stories at the right time packs a big punch.
Your museum holds innumerable wonders with fascinating stories that could never fit on a tiny plaque. It’s not about creating new content; it’s about highlighting your existing content in a way that resonates with visitors from all walks of life.