I arrived at the Met for my first day of Museum Hack training. It had been a heck of an application process: I’d written a hardcore cover letter about my years of working as an educator at the Central Park Zoo, discussed the finer points of cockroach ecology as they relate to sustainable coffee growing at a grocery store, presented on a super-awkward Balthus birthday present in the Modern and Contemporary wing, and attempted to make a dull tapestry as sexy as one can in less than 30 minutes. I was one of ten candidates selected out of a few hundred to train up as part of the first Museum Hack team. Our first task? Take a docent tour.
And I wanted out.
Museums are amazing places, but I felt like I might as well be an alien in a foreign land. As a twenty-something, creative type who’d spent nearly a decade in New York City, you’d think I would feel ownership over such an institution. I’d been going to museums since I was tiny, so there was no reason for me to feel out of place! As I hopped on the free tour led by a delightful and somewhat flighty docent, it all started coming together: this experience is great, but it clearly isn’t made for me. The tour was a standard experience – albeit a good one – but it had one major design flaw: it was attempting to be all things to all people. And, in doing that, it becomes nothing to anyone.
This challenge is not strictly contained to the Met. In my two years of work with Museum Hack, I have started to discover this at the dozens of museums I have had the privilege of visiting and interacting with. Museums, historic sites, and cultural institutions have the great responsibility of finding ways to make history accessible to the greatest number of people possible. It’s a gigantic challenge, especially with limited resources and, in many cases, unpaid staff. And it makes sense: the broadest possible stroke means that you can ideally reach the largest number of folks, not offend anybody, and create a repeatable experience. However, when trying to cultivate a new audience, it becomes very clear that the one-size-fits-all approach might not be the most effective.
Museum Hack was created by Nick Gray in an attempt to reimagine the adult museum experience and capture the imagination of a new audience. Nick, an airline-electronics-salesman-turned-museum-lover, had never felt that museums were for him. He found them slow, staid, scripted and full of information that didn’t feel relevant to his life. That changed during one eye-opening museum date in which he fell in love…with the museum. Afterwards, he set out to pass his newfound love for museums to his friends – mostly creative, experience-seeking millennials. Apparently, it worked. His free tours – not high art history, mostly just stuff he was excited about and had researched – attracted a waiting list of nearly a thousand, and suddenly it was time to create a business. Enter Museum Hack: a group of renegade museum lovers who bring their passion and energy to museum collections, backed by sound research and dynamic storytelling skills.
As my fellow Hackers and I started constructing our first tours, I realized very quickly how much of Nick’s approach I was going to need to adopt. Museum Hack tasked us with developing all of our own content: no scripts, no formulas, nothing besides good old fashioned roll-up-the-sleeves-and-get-dirty digging in the museum, followed by hours in the library. To me, this sounded like a ton of fun work, so I figured it would be great to do with my friends. I called all of my buddies. But, to my surprise and dismay, nobody was biting:
“The Met’s too big.”
“I get tired in museums.”
“Why would you want to do something like that?”
“They always shush me, the art doesn’t mean anything, and my feet hurt. Plus, I hate the tours.”
Clearly there was something wrong. If the people with whom I socialized outside of the museum were feeling left out in the cold, then there was an opportunity to make an impact. My resolve was emboldened, and my hours at the museum grew longer as I, alongside my new Museum Hack friends, tried to craft a new kind of museum experience.
As a private organization operating in the museum space, Museum Hack is beholden to one set of people only: our ticket buyers. There are no outside funders or institutional voices to whom we must answer, so our mandate comes directly from the audience. And, with this freedom, we have an opportunity that many museums do not: we are here to provide a positive museum experience for our guests by meeting them exactly where they are and giving them precisely what they want. And, unlike museums, our proof comes not in the form of surveys or studies that are tied to a dollar value hanging above our heads – it comes from bodies on tours, TripAdvisor reviews, and revenue earned for ourselves and the museum.
All of this gives Museum Hack one great advantage: we get to take bigger risks.
I think this is the greatest way private organizations working in museum spaces are helping grow the field. By standing firmly in our outsider status, with our acknowledgement that we are not meant to fit all ideas of an ideal museum experience at once, we disavow ourselves of the institutional voice and get to experiment in ways that museums often cannot. Where, in my past life working on the inside, a new interpretive program might require months of review before it hit the ground, Museum Hack allows me the freedom to prototype a new approach, try it out live on the 11am tour and, if it sucks, rapidly change it for the 2:30pm, make notes, and keep moving. What is my “institutional risk” here? That a guest will request a refund. But that feedback is far more valuable than the money returned.
The best feedback I’ve ever received actually came from my first practice tour, given to my friends in order to test out some ideas. I handed out a feedback form, and this is what I got: “Bored. None of this applies to my life. It’s all just facts and information about art. Tell me a good story that I can actually relate to, and make it fun.”
The lightbulb in my head went off, as I shared this note with my fellow Hackers. The new set of visitors we were working to attract don’t want to know who made what when. They could care less about brushstrokes, dates and movements. They want to know the story: the drama and emotions of investing oneself in creating art, building a temple, or ruling an empire. As Freeman Tilden stated, “These people of other centuries played, loved, quarreled, worshipped, knew beauty — all the essentials were about the same.” Visitors don’t just want to hear what people did; visitors want to know what people felt, who they loved, and how it changed the course of history. Visitors want to know that what they feel and do, the major actions of their lives, aren’t so different from how people lived hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. They want to know that we’re all human, and we all have experiences that connect us, no matter how separated we are by time and space.
They want meaning and relevance… and they want it in an easily accessible, and entertaining, way: stories.
As their guides, it was our job to give it to them.
The Museum Hack team and I began to develop stories to help our friends realize that people have been people forever. I thought of my techie friend Matt, an app designer, and found an astrolabe: the 13th century Islamic version of his beloved iPhone. I remembered my former collaborator and feminist buddy Joanna and knew we had to introduce her to Lilith, the misunderstood Mesopotamian demoness who is currently hanging out on the wall in Modern and Contemporary. Robby, who named his cat after a Harry Potter character, would go nuts for the magic wand in Egypt (it even has a Patronus or two etched into it!). And Sam, who told me how much she hates art in general? I offered her the object that the Met has spent the most cash money to acquire. Each of these objects tapped into shared experience that we all have, and made a monumental space like the Met friendly, relevant and, most of all, human.
Museum Hack begins its educational approach from a place of storytelling and entertainment. Why? The audience we aim to attract – one that is clearly skeptical of museums in general – keeps telling us they want to be entertained first, and educated second. So, we give them what they want. As a private organization, we have no specific learning goal or mandates for “inquiry-based learning” or “visual thinking strategies” (although we certainly borrow from all of these approaches). We want our guests to have a positive museum experience, learn a few things, and become hungry for more. And this has implications for institutions. By showing our model’s effectiveness — that an entertainment-first approach successfully attracts new audiences and lays the foundation for continued relationships with museums — we allow institutions to see how a change to their singular approach might, in fact, be useful to their growth as relevant, engaging institutions.
So, what does this all mean for museums? Museum Hack has proven that our audience-driven, education-through-entertainment model works. We have grown from a team of 10 to a company of over 40, located in three cities and doing a brisk business in all of our different offerings. When we face challenges to our growth, it often comes from within the institutions: the need to control every aspect of the museum experience from all angles does little to help create innovation in the field.
Is it possible for museums to adapt some of Museum Hack’s methodologies? Absolutely. We have taught museum professionals from around the world our engagement strategies. But, because of the institutional constraints, some are finding it is easier and more efficient to use groups like us to drive a new audience base. For many, it works. One of our museum partners saw nearly $200,000 in revenue from our operations last year, not to mention attendance from guests who readily admit that they would not have come otherwise.
Ultimately, Museum Hack doesn’t just change museums and museum-goers: it also changes museum lovers, like me. On that first day of training, my eyes opened to why I had yet to feel a deep affinity with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, despite being a ten-year resident of the city. By trying to connect to everyone at once, the standard museum experience was failing to connect with anyone. The result was a sterile experience, rather than one infused with the joy of discovery and the thrill of relatability.
As my fellow Hackers and I began developing our tours, we weren’t just helping others discover and love the museum — I was finding new ways to fall in love with the museum, too. Each object within the galleries of the Met, or any museum for that matter, is representative of a person, a place, a time… and a story. These objects didn’t always sit under glass cases: they were once seen and handled on a regular, even daily, basis and may have been key players in the sagas of life. They are the doorways to worlds we can only imagine, reconstructing the clues left behind to find out that, whether a hundred years ago or twenty-thousand years ago, we have all felt, bled, and lived in recognizable — maybe even universal — ways. It’s our job to open the door.
Ethan Angelica is a Museum Hack tour guide, and head of VIP Partnerships where he works directly with museums to help reimagine the adult museum experience. He has collaborated with museums including California Academy of Sciences, Indiana State Museum and National Museums of Norway. A museum educator, actor and freelancer for the last decade, Ethan has dedicated his professional life to creating unique experiences that re-imagine museums as educational and entertaining.
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