Museum Hack at the Met: challenging the traditional Museum Tour?

We LOVE museums, and we hope you do too.

This is how the Museum Hack team introduces itself. The company was founded less than one year ago by Nick Gray and includes a small number of young enthusiasts who turned their passion for the Metropolitan Museum of the Art in New York City into an “un-highlights museum adventure”.

Museum Hack delivers small group tours (about nine people maximum) unaffiliated with the MET and designed to be highly interactive, subversive, fun, non-traditional. The tour guides in the team do so by recounting exciting, mysterious and sometimes crazy stories about lesser-known objects. This is an ambitious goal as the Met has more than two million works in its collection and the average visitor is likely to just pass by most of them, looking for the well-known masterpieces instead and focusing on finding his/her way in the huge building.

Our tour started in the Great Hall at the entrance to the Museum, where everyone was given a name tag. We were asked to introduce ourselves with a “power move” and share something that we are passionate about. We were then walked through the museum galleries, making stops to observe unusual little details on grandiose paintings, comment on curious objects and discover eccentric/sexual references on works of art that we could not have imagined.

The fil rouge that seems to connect all these artifacts is the idea that humans have been humans since the dawn of time.

As the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Thomas P. Campbell, points out in his Ted Talk:

Bringing people face to face with objects is a way of bringing them face to face with people across time and space, whose lives may have been very different to our own but who, like us, had hopes and dreams, frustrations and  achievements in their lives. This is a process that helps us understand better ourselves and enables us to make better decisions about where we are going. [1]

Museum Hack is in some way experimenting with this process by showing stories and bringing art closer to an every day life dimension, de-mystifying it by taking it off the pedestal for a minute. In this sense, visitors are put in front of a more “human” side of the artifacts, something they can easily relate to or laugh about, instead of something majestic that does not seem to have anything to do with them.

The tour stopped for a coffee break near the Charles Engelhard Court, were every member was asked to select a sculpture and take a picture in a funny pose beside it. The pictures were taken with a Polaroid camera and given to the visitors as a souvenir of the experience. The whole Museum Hack tour was filled with these attempts to make the group have fun and socialize, from the “power move” in the beginning, to a group Egyptian-style photos. This approach may sound intriguing and dynamic for some,  just feel awkward for others. People can be fun and willing to have fun, but they might not like to act in unreasonably funny ways in front of a group of strangers. Triggering social interaction among members of a group is something that has to be built within a solid context, with specific intentions and a slight dose of facilitation, rather than something that simply relies on people’s self-confidence and willingness to interact.

As the tour promised to be highly interactive, it is easy to wonder of what kind of interaction are we talking about. Are people in the group really engaging with each other in meaningful ways or is it just about scavenging for amusing objects?

There were actually two occasions in which the tour engaged in awesomely unconventional ways.
The first one was a 60 seconds presentation of William the Hippo, the semiofficial symbol of the Met, given by Dean; you can check it out here:

This half theatrical performance/half entertainment moment was really surprising in its simplicity as it told something curious about the museum and a piece of the collection in a style that was both unusual and familiar, since it recalled the traditional 1 minute audio tour stop so common in Museums, including the Met. It prompted people on the tour to spontaneously record it and share the stop. Through these 60 seconds we were reminded that there is so much more about an object, in terms of stories and significance, than just what it is written on its label.

The second occasion was a long stop in the Luce Center, the visible storage area of the Museum, where members of the group were asked to pair up, find a work of art that they felt close to (because of personal interest or a particular detail that trigger a particular memory), and try to make sense out of it in a meaningful way by discussing it and then presenting it to the rest of the group. This activity was really engaging and fun as we were asked to accomplish a clear task and ended up talking with a stranger about a work of art, looking for shared personal connections, interests and stories.

All in all, Museum Hack has the potential to deliver what it promises, to make people look at museums in a new way. But in order to get there, it is maybe worth reflecting more on who their audiences are and what they might expect.

As Museum Hack’s primary target audience seems to be people who don’t like museums, we wonder if this the correct way to engage people who may not visit the Met otherwise. Aren’t they risking communicating the idea that engaging and funny tours are just about looking for wild stories and nice spots to take a picture?

Ultimately, what is the “hacking” part really about – a question asked via twitter during our tour? In what way this tour can be considered different from other more “traditional” visits with the same, fundamental, curatorial approach? The Met offers live guided tours for free; are Museum Hack’s worth the not insignificant added expense (one which our group got at a significant discount thanks to the generosity of Museum Hack). People who attend a Museum Hack tour certainly see a wonderful and unexpected side of the Metropolitan Museum of the Art, but the experience itself is still largely about making stops in front of objects and listen to a story, a fact, interpretation. As Nick Gray points out, we like to break conventions in museums, not rules.

Everything considered, we can say that Museum Hack does bring a new perspective, a challenge to the notion of what we think art is, rather than a deconstruction of what we know about museum tours.


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