Museum Commons Explores the Museum Hack Concept

Renegade Tours
Interviews April 08, 2015 Featured Image

Gretchen Jennings, writer of Museum Commons, interviewed a Museum Educator, Margaret Hughes, to find out what she thought of her recent Museum Hack tour. 

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Read the full article: Museum Hack: Worth Thinking (and Writing) About

Margaret Hughes starts the article with her reflections on how she felt about the tour. In the second half of the article, Gretchen Jennings poses a few deep questions about the role an outside commercial company can play in the museum.

Museum Hack: Worth Thinking (and Writing) About:

I often get ideas from museum colleagues on social media, and also from listening to Museum Life, a weekly discussion of museum issues hosted by Carol Bossert on Voice America satellite radio.  In fact the most recent program was an interview with the founders of Museum Hack, and I had listened with a mix of thoughts and emotions. I was thinking of blogging about it.  To my delight, because I had also mentioned that I welcome guest posts, two NYCMER members approached me about contributing to a discussion of Museum Hack on this blog.  They had thoughts they wanted to share, and they were taking to heart the theme of the evening – if you are going to write, you just have to get busy and do it!  For more information I recommend listening to the Museum Life interview mentioned above.

Here’s the first guest post, from Margaret Hughes, Education Manager at Historic Hudson Valley in Pocantico Hills, NY.

In February, my husband (a Gen-Xer) and I (millennial) did Museum Hack tours at AMNH and the Met. These tours were among the most dynamic museum visits I’ve ever had.  I was impressed not just with the quality of the tours, but also with the way that each experience was carefully constructed. Within the first five minutes of the AMNH tour, our guide shared Museum Hack’s mission: to connect millennials to museums. It’s about cultivating a transferrable skill in a specific demographic. This mission was reinforced throughout the tour, both in terms of content and the interpretive/engagement strategies. I was impressed through the whole tour that every choice was made with the mission in mind. (Effective, mission-centric intentionality? It’s the holy grail of programming.)

Our guides allowed us to have fun and be irreverent. This meant the inclusion of salacious material, always appealing to younger audiences. But it also meant breaking some self-imposed ideas about appropriate museum behavior.  Museum educators rarely have problems standing in front of a statue acting out the pose. On field trips, we lead students in similar bodily/kinesthetic activities to help them connect with an artwork. But this activity gets checked at the door after a certain age. Also, it’s typically used for making a “serious” connection with art (i.e., How does the pharaoh’s pose convey power/authority?). Instead, we found a wonky portrait in the early American gallery and took an #UglySelfie with it. For irreverent and ego-centric millennials, this was a great way to present art on their terms.
I also want to make note of the joy that the Museum Hack guides brought to the experience. I can think of plenty of powerful or thought-provoking museum tours I’ve done, but I’ve never been on tours that made being in a museum such a fun experience. (Though the fun never dominated the learning—these were incredibly informative tours.) If part of Museum Hack’s mission is to get millennials to recognize that museums are places for them, I think Museum Hack has done a remarkable job.

Below are Margaret’s responses to some questions I posed:

Jennings: Is this an example of “the sage on the stage” rather than “the guide on the side”?I haven’t been on a tour but as the two leaders described it on Museum Life, it felt very “showy” and leader-centric to me.

Hughes: I don’t think Museum Hack guides fall neatly into this dichotomy..
In a December 2014 interview with Nina Simon on Museum 2.0, Museum Hack’s guide Dustin Growick described his role as “museum personal trainer.” I loved this description, because it captured both the fact that this individual has knowledge/experience that most of us don’t (cool & interesting knowledge) and s/he wants to help us increase our own capacity. It’s about sharing, not showing off how much the guide knows, and it’s also about building capacity in visitors.

Museum Hack also uses a variety of approaches throughout the tour, opportunities for individual exploration and group discussion. In the jewel room of AMNH, we were all asked to find our favorite gem and brainstorm how we would steal it (an activity inspired by an actual occurrence at the museum and probably not an engagement technique included on a museum-sanctioned tour).  In the dinosaur hall, we each received a plastic dinosaur.  We had to find our dinosaur’s fossil, learn something about it, take a #DinoSelfie, and then  present our dino to the rest of the group. At the Met, we did a living tableau of Washington Crossing the Delaware. These were all exercises that (1) allowed for individual exploration; (2) connected individual to group; (3) gave us permission to have fun and connect with the museum. Some of these also were techniques that visitors could use in the future, on their own or with friends.There wasn’t much that was particularly new or innovative about Museum Hack’s approaches, as they readily admit. Instead, they use good tools effectively.

Jennings: Isn’t it a regressive model? As museums are trying to be more inclusive, give visitors more autonomy, this seems an expensive elitist model with the authority of the museum exchanged for the authority of the guide.

Hughes: I want to tackle these as two separate issues– first, inclusivity/visitor autonomy, and second expense/elitism.
Inclusivity/visitor autonomy relates to the point above regarding authority. Museums have become more inclusive in efforts to recognize visitors’ own rich experience and to include more points of entry and diverse narratives. To this end, we’ve moved away from approaches that tell visitors what they should appreciate and why. We want visitors to have more control over their experiences, from what they look at to the meaning they make.
I had the feeling that our AMNH tour hit everything that our guide intended. (The tour had gone as scripted.) But by engaging us throughout and connecting content to us personally, it didn’t  feel like the type of lecture-based guided tour that most of us regard with dread.
To the point about exchanging authority from museum to guide–what I think happened was that the “authority” of the guides translated as authority that could belong to any member of the group. Both the Museum Hack leaders and the Museum Hack guides make it clear that they didn’t have specialized training or access to unique resources. (Indeed, at AMNH, the guide encouraged all of us to visit the museum’s library, open to the public.) They weren’t saying, I’m the authority, listen to me. Instead they demonstrated that anyone could pursue this type of knowledge. (You could even say they were modeling a type of “lifelong learning” and empowering the tour participants to do the same.)

In thinking of autonomy, I think we sometimes perhaps forget how daunting this can be. When I studied Museum Education at George Washington University, we discussed the “3 Cs”: comfort, confidence, choice. I think that these go in a particular order: visitors first feel comfortable in their surroundings, then confident about what they are doing, and finally empowered to choose their experience. The Museum Hack tours did a great job of walking visitors through the process, helping new museum-goers get acclimated to the museum and finally empowered to explore on their own. As “personal trainer” Dustin Growick put it, “Sometimes all you need is a little help using the equipment.” Museum Hack is helping people learn to use the equipment of museums.

Regarding elitism–yes, yes it is. Museum Hack charges a lot of money for the experience. As the museum field is debating admission costs, Museum Hack takes charging as a given and caters to the segment of the millennial audience with disposable income for such experiences. Museum Hack says they are about connecting millennials to museums. But really it’s the millennials who can afford to pay the hefty fee. And I think this is where it’s really interesting to think about the relationship between museums and Museum Hack. Can we learn from Museum Hack (because I would argue there are things we can learn, or at least be reminded of) and emulate what works without forsaking our other responsibilities?

Jennings: Is it a sustainable model?  Seems sustainable for the tour company, especially as they are expanding into training museums to do these kinds of tours.  Is it sustainable for museums?  Seems like museums might be able to do more interactive tours, but having just 8 or 10 people in the group, while ideal, might be hard in terms of scheduling and staffing. On the other hand, is it bringing in a new, underserved audience – 20 or 30 somethings who don’t usually go to museums?

Hughes: I agree–sustainable for Museum Hack but not for museums. However, with the aging out of the traditional museum audiences (& donor pools) comes the need to supplement the numbers and monies from new generations. Can the Museum Hack approach introduce the millennial generation to museums, the first step toward cultivating them as regular members, donors, supporters? There’s nothing in Museum Hack’s approach (as far as I can tell, from interviews as well as from my experiences) that in any way relates to creating a sustained relationship between visitor and museum. Museum Hack wants to raise awareness of the value of museums and equip people to curate their own museum visits. But then it’s up to those of us working in museums to connect with our communities and collaborate with our communities to create sustained relationships.
Yes, there are some elements of Museum Hack that are troubling for museum professionals or that fly in the face of our own efforts. Still, can (and will) museums learn from Museum Hack and benefit from the increased enthusiasm they cultivate to advance the ongoing work we do? We certainly can’t ignore Museum Hack, so how can we use this phenomenon to advance our field?

Read the full article: Museum Hack: Worth Thinking (and Writing) About

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