Our first ever TEDx Talk on why museums are awesome!

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Museum Hack News May 19, 2015 Featured Image

Watch our TEDx talk to find out more about:

  1. How Museum Hack started.
  2. How gossip, games and guides make our tours different.
  3. Nick’s love for magical gold, an ancient baby Jesus, and sexy jasper lips.

Or read below for a transcript of the video.

Transcript from  “How I Learned To Stop Hating and Love Museums”  I hate museums. I think they are boring, the paintings have nothing to do with me.  My feet hurt.  Get me outta here! That’s how I felt until about four years ago, when I had an amazing experience. A woman brought me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a romantic date. True story, it was our third date. This is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A lot of you have probably been there. It’s the most popular museum in all of America. It’s the second most popular museum in the world, and yet, to me and my friends in New York City, this place, this museum, is just a tourist attraction. Right, like, this is the type of place you go when your parents are in town. I didn’t have a relationship with it until that night. She said “Let’s go to the museum,” and we went.  It was the middle of December on a Saturday night. The museum is open late on Friday and Saturday nights. It looked something like this.

And as we walked around, she began to give me a private tour, showing me things that she liked. I saw paintings and sculptures, Egyptian artifacts and furniture, and I don’t know if it was the very romantic mood lighting that night, or maybe it was the snow falling down in Central Park or maybe it was just having a very attractive woman talk to me? But, something magic happened, and that night, I fell in love with the museum.

Something magic happened that night. I fell in love with the museum.

I’m not joking, I really fell in love with the museum. I started going there every single weekend. I became obsessed. It unlocked within me a sense of curiosity about history and art that I never knew that I had. I worked, during the week, I sold electronic equipment for planes. But, during the weekend, this became my new hobby. I did audio tours, I followed docents, I looked things up on Wikipedia, I found YouTube videos. I loved it so much that I started doing free tours for my friends. These are some photos of those tours. Me, showing my friends around the museum, my favorite things. Now, it’s helpful to keep in mind that I was a business major in college. I have never taken an art history class. So these were not very sophisticated tours. They were basically ten cool things I found and three things that I want to steal. On my tours, I would bring my friends to an object lik a Goa stone case, made in the early 1700s on the west coast of India, meant to house a Goa stone. This was a ball about the size of a pool ball that the Jesuit priests believed had magical, mystical properties. It was worth way more than its weight in gold. They thought that you could shave off a piece of a Goa stone and put it into a cup of tea and it would cure any type of poison. They thought that you could drop a Goa stone into the well and it would cure the plague for a hundred miles around. These cases were incredible, and during my tours, we would get down on our hands and knees and press our faces up to the glass. We would look.  We would look at the craftsmanship and I would ask my friends; “Think about this. What would you put inside if you stole it?”.Their answer, by the way, was usually chocolate, or drugs. So, those were my museum tours and my friends told their friends, and their friends told their friends. It became like the go-to thing to do on a Friday or Saturday night in New York City. We did birthday parties that looked like this.

Museum Hack tour group at Temple of Dendur

A blog wrote about my tours, and the next day, a thousand people emailed me wanting to join one of the tours. It was becoming a very full-time hobby. I started to recruit my friends to help me out and I’m happy to tell you today that two years ago, I quit my job and I’ve spent everyday since then trying to reimagine the adult museum experience. The name of my company is Museum Hack and I’m gonna tell you what we do that’s different from most museum tours and why I think this matters. Three main things that make us different. Guides, games, and gossip. Let’s start with the guides, because tour guides are the heart and soul of our business. They are the reason why visitors love us, come back to us, and tell their friends.

We hire people from a diverse set of backgrounds. We hire scientists, art history majors, we hire actors and educators.

We hire people like this guy, this is Ethan. He’s an educator.

Ethan leading a tour at the Met.

Here’s the thing. When we hire our tour guides, right? We think that storytelling is more important than art history. Today’s audiences have to entertained before they can be educated. And so, we start with passion first, and our guides write all of their own routes, right? They come up with their whole tour, ‘cause they have to talk about things that they’re very, very excited about.

You can imagine, they have a lot to share, on the average Museum Hack tour you see two to three times as many objects as most museum tours. With us you see ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty objects. We move so fast in fact, that every single tour starts kind of with a game. The guide says “Listen, before we begin, I need everybody to huddle up and put your hands in the middle”. It’s really how all of our tours start. So the guide says “we need to move very quickly today, we have to act as a team so we’re gonna start off with a little cheer. We’re gonna say “Muuu-seee-um!” and then we’re going inside. I mean, that’s really how all the tours start, they go “Muuu-seee-um!” and then they hustle inside to begin, right?


We’re selling museum adventures, not museum tours. Have you ever been at an art gallery and you’re looking at the art. And instead of feeling inspired or excited, you like, start yawning,and you feel kind of tired and overwhelmed? This is a real thing that happens, it’s called “gallery fatigue”. And so we’ve developed what we call “fatigue fighting exercises” to combat those. Like, we’ll do yoga in the modern and contemporary gallery. We’ll do squats in the stairwells. We love to take pictures on our tour, we encourage selfies. Let’s be honest by the way, you look awesome in a museum. We love to take pictures and we do games, we have prizes, we do challenges.

We are selling museum adventures not museum tours

We’re trying to attract a whole new type of audience to the museum. People who think that maybe they don’t like museums. I’m so excited about what we’re doing, but my favorite part of the tour is the gossip.

I love to tell people the juicy backstories behind the art

I love to tell people the juicy backstories behind the art. Some of my favorite visitors who show up are people who we lovingly refer to as “finance bros”. These are people who are first in their income category and they are first in intelligence, but often times the last place they wanna be is at the museum. They get dragged there on a date or something. So when they come we welcome them to the museum. We identify them. We say “Tonight we are gonna start the tour in a totally different way. We are gonna start and go to the piece that the museum paid the most cash money for.” And so we take them up the stairs, on the second floor, to a tiny little room to show them this tiny little painting.

It was painted by an artist named Duccio in the year 1300. Duccio was a pre-Renaissance master. To put this in perspective, Duccio, before him, art was what’s called Byzantine, right? It was like 2-D, like a comic book, no interaction. Duccio comes up and blows it up. He makes this relationship between the characters. On our tours, we get people to crouch down and look up at this. It’s, it’s tiny, it’s about the size of an iPad and in the year 2004, the Metropolitan Museum of Art spent over forty five million dollars. That’s over a million dollars per square inch.

Ethan talking about Madonna and Child by Duccio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

We get down and we look at Jesus brushing aside the veil on Mary’s virgin blue cloak. You look at that interaction between Mary, glancing down at Jesus with his peanut-shaped head. Duccio knew how to paint babies, by the way. He’s painting Christ like this to signify the man-child that he was about to become. That’s why sometimes you see baby Jesus with a six pack. We know that we’ve been successful when we talk about this piece if afterwards, they say, “That was really interesting, what else do you have here that’s expensive?”.

It’s controversial to talk about how much things cost in art museums. But that’s what our visitors want to hear. We’re not afraid to talk about controversial things, I mean, our slogan is “Museums are F**king Awesome”.

Guides, games, and gossip. But, why do we do this? Why museums? Why does this matter? I have to tell you about my favorite piece of art in the entire world. I’ve been to the Metropolitan Museum now more than three hundred times in the last three years and every single time I see this piece, I kinda get butterflies in my stomach.

Fragment of a Queen’s Face, ca. 1353–1336 B.C.

It’s a life-sized little sculpture. It’s called “Fragment of a Queen’s Face”, and while it may look new to you, this is very, very old. It’s an Egyptian artifact over three thousand years old. We don’t exactly know who it is, there’s a lot of mystery. It could be Nefertiti, it could be a woman name Queen Tiye. It’s made from a material called Yellow Jasper, and there’s two things you need to know about Yellow Jasper. Number one, at the time this was made Yellow Jasper was incredibly rare, it was so rare that the next largest piece of Yellow Jasper in the whole museum is no bigger than your thumbnail. So this would have been a really big deal. The face, and the hands. The second thing about Yellow Jasper is that it is insanely hard to work with. On the hardness scale of one to ten, where a diamond is a ten, marble is a three. Yellow Jasper is a solid six, pushing a seven. It makes marble look like a stick of butter.

I was talking to a curator about how much I like this piece, and he said “You know what’s incredible? Is that, not only do we not know who it is…”, he said “We don’t know how it was made.” Alright, this is a very hard stone, it’s a semi-precious stone. He said “Beyond all of that, there are no surviving examples of tools which could have been used to get the definition and the polish on those lips.” And this woman heard us talking, and she stuck her head in, and she goes “I bet it was the aliens!”. She did not work at the museum, by the way.

This is my favorite piece, because I look at this, and I see those lips, and I think…if the lips look like this, can you imagine what the rest of it would have looked like? She would have been presented to the Pharaoh, maybe wearing a Nubian wig and a dress made entirely out of feathers. I think that this is what a great piece of art is. Right? Like, today I can see this and it kinda takes my breath away. Three thousand years ago, I couldn’t communicate with the Egyptians. I don’t speak the language and I can’t read hieroglyphics. But today, I can see those lips and I can feel something.

But today, I can see those lips and I can feel something

A great piece of art can communicate through time. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is an encyclopedic museum that has over five thousand years of human history. The greatest compliment that I ever got after one of our tours came from a music video director from Los Angeles. He said “I’ve been on this tour with you for two hours now”, he said, “I never would have been here. I’ve walked through these halls and I’ve seen objects that are one hundred, that are five hundred, that are a thousand years old.” He said, “I’ve seen objects that are one hundred, that are five hundred, that are a thousand years old, that have withstood the test of time and I look at my own work, and I wonder if that will stand the test of time.” He said, “being at this museum has made me want to be a better creator”.

My name is Nick Gray, the name of my company is Museum Hack. I think that museums are f**king awesome.

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Do you work for a museum, or do you want to talk about engaging new museum goers? We would love to work with you. Find out more about our consulting work with museums, or email us to open up a conversation about working together.  

written with 💖 by Museum Hack

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