This summer, during my three-day retreat in the Met Museum, Museum Hack invited me on one of their Un-Highlights Tours. I had heard intriguing things about their museum tours, and I was excited to finally see for myself what all the buzz was about.
Museum Hack: 'Museum Tours For People Who Don't Like Museums'
Founded in 2013 by Nick Gray, Museum Hack is an exciting company that leads interactive tours of museums in NYC, San Francisco, DC, and Chicago. Additionally, they provide consulting for museums on audience engagement, and work with museums on specific projects (check out my interview about their work on SFMOMA’s innovative new mobile app). They even have a new job website full of enticing museum jobs.
The Un-Highlights Tour
At the start of the tour, I found Jen Browne, our guide, in the Met lobby. She was energetic and friendly (I was not surprised to learn she has training in theatre). Our group was small, and Jen took the time to address each one of us and to learn a bit about our backgrounds.
The tour started with an actual group cheer. We then immediately booked it from the lobby to the first object. In contrast to the official Met-offered tour I had gone on the day before, the Museum Hack tour covered a lot of ground. From Ancient Egyptian funerary objects to 18th century French decorative art, we traveled across large thematic (and physical) distances.
Jen employed many techniques to keep us engaged, from asking us questions to incorporating our backgrounds into her presentations. She referenced us by name (name tags facilitated this), which made it feel like she was a new friend. She also entertained us, taking on characters in artworks and regaling us with stories. Even riding the elevator was an engaging experience.
There were also games. From storytelling games played in pairs, to an overarching photo challenge (which had a prize for the winner), to a group skit, we actively participated throughout the tour. I was impressed to see that everyone in the group was actually participating. Jen’s enthusiasm allowed us to shed our inhibitions and actually be silly. The creative approaches also helped in this, like when she had us imagine traveling through time to the Temple of Dendur in the 1960s, or when she took us to an artwork that visitors are allowed to touch.
The content of the tour included stories about the collectors of objects, provenance, the life of objects through time, the text in wall panels, curatorial choices, museum architecture, esthetics, the subjects represented in artworks, the original use of objects… A plethora of approaches to the objects helped us look at the museum's collections through many different lenses.
Oh, and there’s swearing. It filled me with a subversive pleasure to hear Jen occasionally employ gros mots in the hallowed galleries of the Met.
Two Compliments and a Critique
My overall reaction to this tour was extremely positive. I had fun; I learned about the Met’s collections.
I greatly appreciated the quality of the tour guide. Jen had clearly done her research and appropriated the objects she presented to us. Her approach was accessible and her tone was engaging. As she communicated her curiosity and wonder at the objects, we were invited to share in them. She crafted a magical experience for us.
The rhythm of the visit was carefully varied to keep us engaged, but not exhausted, for two hours. There were moments when we were almost running through the galleries; there were moments when we had free time to sit and write postcards. I left the tour feeling ready to sit down to lunch and digest what had just happened: energized and not fatigued.
Going on a Museum Hack tour is an investment. While I went on the tour as a guest, the tour normally ranges from $49-$59. I can’t imagine paying that much for a museum tour, as fun as it was. Then again, perhaps if I didn’t already feel at home in museums, that hefty price tag would be worth it as an introduction to playing in museums.
Museum Hack provided me with this tour free of charge. The opinions expressed here are my own.