Museum Hack adds fun and games to the typical art tour

A Museum Hack tour group re-enacts the painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A Museum Hack tour group re-enacts the painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

SAN FRANCISCO — Mrs. Mary Boyer Shewell had just used her elegant, gray scarf to strangle our tour guide inside the de Young museum. There was a nefarious look to the woman immortalized in the 1775 portrait by American painter Henry Benbridge, and other figures on the walls were also clearly up to no good.

Before the group left the gallery, our Museum Hack guide would also be hypothetically killed by poison, a shotgun-wielding toddler and a baby lamb.

Midway through a two-hour tour of the art museum, guide Julian Vercoutere had just posed a Clue-like whodunit inside a room full of portraits from the museum’s collections. The lights would go dark, he said, and when they came back up, he would be dead. Our task? Examining the paintings on display to determine which of the characters had committed the crime, and how and why.

“You’d be surprised how many times I’m killed for no reason,” Vercoutere said.

If this doesn’t sound like the average art museum tour, that’s entirely the point. Museum Hack uses games, dramatic stories and lots of group participation to lure people whose eyes glaze at the mere mention of the word “museum” into places such as San Francisco’s de Young, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The company is currently running beta tours at the Art Institute of Chicago in preparation for a full launch this fall. 

“Our typical audience is someone who says, ‘I don’t really like museums. I think I can skip that,’” said Museum Hack founder Nick Gray. “And that’s who we’re trying to change.” That’s also the kind of person Gray was before a date brought him to the Met in New York.

“We went at night, and she walked me around and gave me this one-on-one tour showing me things that she liked and that she was excited about,” he said. “That was awesome. I was like, ‘Now I understand.’”

Group members take a selfie during a scavenger hunt that’s part of a Museum Hack tour.
Group members take a selfie during a scavenger hunt that’s part of a Museum Hack tour.

Gray started visiting the Met frequently, researching pieces at home, then going to see them in person. Soon he was dragging friends along on free tours. Then in 2013, the Daily Candy blog recommended Gray’s informal, under-the-radar art tours.

“For me, that was really a game-changer,” Gray said. “More than 1,000 people sent me emails [saying] like, ‘Dude, I want to go on your tour.’”

Thus Museum Hack was born.

Last year, Gray said, 10,000 people attended one of the company’s public tours, generating $200,000 for the museums they visited. This year, Museum Hack, which works as a third-party tour provider in the various institutions where it operates, is on pace to double its revenue, and its business has grown beyond irreverent art tours to include team-building sessions and museum consulting.

Under the main stairs inside the de Young lobby, Vercoutere passed out nametags and gathered our Un-highlights Tour group into a loose huddle, hands in the center like a soccer team. On the count of three, we gave a mezzo forte “mu-ZEE-um” chant, and then we were off.

The tour was fast-paced and focused, darting between galleries, stories and participatory activities. While all Museum Hack tours include some of the same basic concepts, each guide writes his or her own tour based on shared company resources, individual research and what he or she finds interesting.

In a contemporary gallery, Vercoutere discussed one-eyed glass artist Dale Chihuly and a rogue backpack that shattered an ornate vase now protected behind plexiglass. He paused at a sequined Nick Cave soundsuit (what Cave calls it) to share a bit of the artist’s background and show video of his wearable works in action.

The group stopped at a bronze of museum founder M.H. de Young, who also founded the San Francisco Chronicle and had a thing for collecting stuffed birds and nooses that had been used to hang people. In the African gallery, we each strategized an imaginary art heist, explaining which piece we’d want to steal and how we’d do it.

The tours aren’t for everyone.

“Some people have gotten upset and said we ruined the sanctity of art,” said Vercoutere, who studied art history and also works as a docent at the California Academy of Sciences. He doesn’t see it that way. Gallery fatigue is real, he said. “I tried to go through all of the Louvre in one day and came out crying.”

Without the Museum Hack tour, one young woman in the group said, “we probably wouldn’t have come. We’re not really museum people.”

In a world saturated with information, Gray sees museums as resources that have lost touch with some potential visitors.

“I believe that museums have so much opportunity and power,” he said. “They’re this physical, real-life version of Wikipedia that hold some of the best stories in the whole world. And a lot of people have just written them off. If Museum Hack is able to change that, I think it’s successful. We’re not trying to compete with museums and other museum tours. We’re competing with smartphones and Facebook and Netflix and this [attention deficit disorder] generation.”

Vercoutere gathered the group around a lush landscape lit brighter than anything else in the room. “Rainy Season in the Tropics” by Frederic Edwin Church depicts a couple of travelers making their way through the jungle alongside a roaring waterfall. The Andes jut upward on the other side of the river, and Mount Olympus rises in the background. A perfectly curved double rainbow arcs across the whole scene, which has a misty glow, “like a bad Instagram filter,” Vercoutere observed.

Then the guide instructed the group to bend down and look to the painting’s upper right hand corner. A zigzag lightning bolt of texture appeared, marking the spot where the canvas had been torn more than a century earlier. And Vercoutere is off, explaining Church’s history, the complex process of repairing a painting and a host of other strange, intriguing details you’d never find on a museum information panel.


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