Art Museum Teaching

What is Museum Hack?

Written by Jen Oleniczak

“Museums Are F****** Awesome.”

The above phrase is written in bold on the back of a postcard handed out after every tour; Museum Hack believes it, and thinks you should too. The company is not associated with the museum, rather they are a band of renegade lovers of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that call themselves Museum Hack.

The Company

Museum Hack, at its core, seeks to get people excited about museums. While a simple thought, and common mission for all educators, it’s a complicated formula. I’ve been working as a Hacker for the past few months, leading tours with Creative Director and Chief Hacker Mark Rosen. Small in size but big in energy, Museum Hack tours are two-hour jaunts, breaking the massive museum down into individual experiences with works of art. Working with the mindset that museums should be treated like fine dining – experiences not to overindulge in – Museum Hack encourages visitors to savor the works that resonate and ignore the urge to see it all. Tours incorporate inquiry, storytelling, movement, tour guide swaps, photo challenges, power moves, and a little sass to shake up the traditional museum visit.

Essentially, the company tries to humanize museums and art. The museum is treated like an old friend you can’t wait to see again, as tours highlight the personality of the collection in an attempt to turn even the most skeptical visitor into a Met fan. As one of the largest museums in the world, the Met is daunting to even the most seasoned visitor. With that in mind, Museum Hack decided to hack in an effort to provide the kind of tasting menu that keeps visitors coming back.

Here’s a perfect example: after teaching a group about accession numbers at the beginning of the tour, and how to use them to access the Met’s online collection, I had a group using them to figure out provenance about a work – without my prompting. Before the tour, many if not all of them had no idea what the decimal number on the label was. How empowering is that to a visitor?

How is this different from other tours? Museum Hack supplements the expected lecture-based or dialogue-focused museum tour with the kind of teaching you’d expect on the best high school tour ever given, but on speed. This fearless approach to museum education is a huge part of the success of this barely five-month-old company. Tours are also $39 per person (in keeping with private tour costs in New York City) and group size is kept to a maximum of 9 participants. Thinking less tour and more adventure, Museum Hack aims to provide visitors with an experience worth every penny.

The Museum

Museum Hack is not affiliated with the Met. The Met is aware of the company, as evidenced in a Wall Street Journal piece and multiple news segments filmed on-site. As a Hacker, there have been a few times I’ve been shushed, but I’ve also been shushed in museums that employ me. A large part of the ‘why’ Museum Hack exists is the passion about the Met – everyone truly believes it is an incredible museum, and wants to share that enthusiasm.

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The Why & How of Museum Hack 

Written by Mark Rosen

Why We Hack 

Museum Hack was founded largely with museum skeptics in mind, those folks who know museums are important but don’t find them all too intellectually sexy. I often drop the line “people have been people since they’ve been people” while on tour to draw attention to how relateable the objects can be once you snap out of the usual museum-going mentality. While with us, we encourage visitors to be their real selves, and empower them to feel like they don’t have to change to fit the space.

We believe museums are SO much more than their highlights. That said, it seems most visitors come to institutions like the Met and end up resorting to a highlights checklist or squeezing it all into one frenzied visit. We believe museums really start to mean something when you’re motivated to hunt for what speaks to you. We’re hoping to inspire people to start to reexamine what it means to be cultured; visiting in a “got the postcard” kind of way is something, but wanting to be active and inquisitive in a visit is our idea of next level.

How We Hack

Hacking, in all of its buzzword glory, can be interpreted in a number of ways. To us, hacking involves studying the elements of a system so well that you can manipulate them to make them into something new. Make that system a “museum experience,” add in some renegade flair, and you have the core of Museum Hack. We’re building the company into a think-tank of sorts, creating space to muck with new ways of getting people to connect with museums.

Our hacking is best split into two categories: content hack and experience hack. We see the content hack as hacking the collection and celebrating its underdogs, those works in corners and thruways that you would never expect to have amazing stories. This is why we call our tours Un-Highlights tours; they’re about the hundreds of thousands of things most people breeze by on their way to the biggies. The experience hack comes in with style and the variety of activities we use to get visitors to engage in unexpected ways. You might be forced to spend seven minutes in art heaven or find yourself striking a pose and talking like a sculpture, you never know.

The common thread of all of our tours is passion. We feel people are most attracted to an infectiously passionate voice, so we encourage our guides to be unapologetically head over heals in love with what makes art and history juicy.  Our scrappy team is made up of research-loving interdisciplinary thinkers who are given a toolbox but told to follow their intuition and ultimately give the tour they would give to their friends.

What’s Next? 

Museum Hack is starting to think of thematic tours (Creepy Baby Jesus, The Metropolitan Museum of Butts, maybe a Ladies Night at the Met tour) and expansion to other museums.  As the company continues to evolve, we’re interested in opening the conversation up to challenge our thinking and explore what more folks think of hacking the museum.

Learn More – view December 17th’s Google+ Hangout Archive

On December 17th, Jen Oleniczak and Mike Murawski connected via a Google Hangout on Air to chat more about Museum Hack and answer questions. Thanks to everyone who watched us live and tweeted in your questions.  While Jen was lost from the connection for a bit, Mike kept the torch burning and we are able to have a great conversation about what Museum Hack means and what is next.  There was also a great Twitter chat happening via the hashtag #museumhack (so check that out if you have a chance).  Here were some of the questions we addressed — and you can watch the video below:

To stay connected about this and future Google Hangouts hosted via ArtMuseumTeaching.com, join the Art Museum Teaching Google Community.