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
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
“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.
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
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
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]
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.