Interviews

Museum Hack: Disrupting Tours & Team-Building with Storytelling

By Ashley Taylor Anderson October 10, 2016

It all started in 2011 with a girl. A girl who enjoyed museums.

Nick Gray did not enjoy museums. In fact, he thought they were pretty boring. But the girl suggested a date at The Met, and a boy will endure a little boredom to spend time with a beautiful girl.

They went to the museum on a snowy winter’s eve in NYC. The lights were low, the shadows thick, the visitors scarce. The atmosphere was perfect for… storytelling.

As they strolled through the halls, the girnicl began to tell stories about her favorite pieces. The stories weren’t the ones you’d find in art history books. The pieces weren’t the ones tourists lined up to see. The girl shared about works she was passionate about—the ones she had lingered on, dug into, fallen in love with.

Over the course of the evening, these stories began to take hold of Nick. They reached out through time and space, transforming lifeless artifacts into rich narratives of people and places and events that took on new meaning.

The magic of the evening persisted. Gray began obsessively visiting the museum, uncovering his own stories with the help of Wikipedia and YouTube. Eventually, he began inviting friends along on his own private “un-highlights” tours. They, in turn, invited their friends. And so on and so forth, until Museum Hack grew into a full-blown business in 2013.

Museum Hack Tour Guides

Museum Hack tour guides in action

Related Reading: Becoming the Lorax—An Interview with Vimeo Designer Justin Dickinson

Reimagining Museum Tours for the 21st-Century

Museum Hack is not just another tour company. Their mission — to “solve museum apathy” — is much bigger than simply educating the masses on the significance of ancient artifacts. Gray, who is founder and CEO, strongly believes in the transformative power of the museum experience—at least when it’s grounded in story and personal connection.

“Today’s audiences are digitally saturated. While there’s a lot of great web content out there, real-life experiences are the ones that are memorable and monumental and life-changing,” says Gray. “Museums can teach us a lot about history and humanity. And unlike, say, your Twitter feed, they’re full of art that has withstood the test of time.”

Tour guide Emily keeps the group engaged with an entertaining story.

While Museum Hack stemmed from an unplanned, unrehearsed stroll through the Met, today’s experience is the result of meticulous experimentation.

“When we first started doing tours, we did a ton of tests. I gave at least 2 tours every single weekend. I passed out surveys to my friends. I looked at my net promoter scores. I tried new routes, new revisions, new stories. I was obsessed with creating the best possible museum experience, and our approach today reflects the best of all those learnings,” says Gray.

The winning approach that Gray and team use is steeped in storytelling—interactive storytelling, to be precise. Each tour features anecdotes, games, trivia, and ongoing Q&A between guests to fight gallery fatigue.

“Interactivity encourages audience participation and sparks an actual conversation,” says Gray. “We hate the idea of ‘the sage on the stage,’ someone who talks at people instead of with them. We want people to ask questions and be active participants in ‘the making of the meaning’ during their museum experience.”

Keeping people engaged over a two-hour tour is no easy feat. Gray and his team rely heavily on theater tactics such as audience reading and improv to keep the energy high from start to finish. Each group is kept purposefully small so that guides can personalize their approach for specific attendees.

Related Reading: Why the Shift to Engagement Means Interactive Design Is More Important than Ever

Interactive Tours: Renegade Edition

I recently attended a Museum Hack tour at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York City. I had been to the museum a number of times before, but never on an organized tour. Under the tutelage of our guide Emily, I heard a bunch of fascinating stories. My favorites were about Carl Akeley, the taxidermist who developed sophisticated techniques used in many of the museum’s displays.

The most memorable story of the afternoon featured Akeley being mauled by a leopard in the African savannah. After an intense struggle, he eventually killed it by punching it in the throat—from the inside.

Carl, with the vanquished leopard. I’m not making this s%^& up. Source: PBS

This guy was apparently the Jean Claude Van Damme of the Victorian era. Not only did he survive the leopard incident—he also survived an elephant stampede and an attack by a group of angry gorillas.

In addition to hearing great stories, we also were able to tell some of our own. After learning about amateur thief Jack Murphy’s heist of the Star of India in the Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems, our group members were tasked with choosing one artifact we would hypothetically steal, and coming up with a story about what we would do with it.

As an amateur historical costumer, I naturally gravitated toward this beautiful Edwardian necklace, which I said I would wear to a reenactment event with a Worth-inspired period ball gown.

Edwardian Necklace - AMNH

The necklace in question. Don’t worry—I’m going to recreate it, not steal it!

Our guides involved us in the journey at every step of the way, letting us choose which exhibits to visit and which objects to explore. They also pointed out their personal favorites along the way, including several items I wouldn’t have given more than a passing glance on my own. 

Tattoo Stamps - Museum Hack

Our co-pilot shows off some of her favorite tattoo stamps in the Hall of Mexico & Central America.

Throughout the tour, our guides paid close attention to the group and modified their route and approach accordingly. “That’s the benefit of a live interactive experience—you can learn about people, read their reactions, and make adjustments,” says Gray.

This two-way interaction is incredibly powerful on many levels. Conversation is a highly effective educational method—the peer-to-peer learning movement in K-12 and higher education provides ample proof. It’s a great way to make emotional connections between the people in the room, particularly among an awkward group of strangers. But it also creates a connection between the present and the past. Certain artifacts may speak to visitors through the barrier of time. In other cases, visitors have to start their own conversations with the people, places, and things that came before. Compared to the outcome of an ordinary tour (e.g., see some famous stuff and learn a few factoids you can use to impress people at parties), the Museum Hack philosophy delivers a whole lot more value.

A Story-Driven Approach to Team-Building and Training

In addition to their popular tours, Museum Hack now also offers corporate trainings and team-building activities in San Francisco, New York, D.C, and Chicago.

“Early on, someone randomly asked, ‘You’re doing these crazy renegade tours. Can we do one for a private corporate event?’ I said, ‘Sure… I guess so.’ It was a great experience, so we started doing more of them. Today, we have a bunch of amazing companies coming to us for team-building events,” says Gray.

Museum Hack Chant

Bring it in for a Mu-SEUM team chant!

Each tour is tailored to the company’s unique culture, mission, and industry. For example, health care companies might focus on ancient health care artifacts, while customer service companies may explore art that highlights the extraordinary levels of service in the Roman Empire.

From team-building, it was just a sideways step into corporate training. Clients began to ask if Museum Hack’s tour guides could teach their sales, HR, and marketing teams to tell stories in an equally compelling way. Using a 20% theory, 80% application approach, these storytelling workshops are designed to help employees identify, use, and optimize stories to drive connection with their audiences.

Companies like Google, Marriott, Johnson & Johnson, and BarkBox have all participated in these trainings. Having been on a renegade tour, I totally understand why. No matter what the subject matter—taxidermy, construction, geology, or politics—Museum Hack’s guides find a way to make their audience care about the subject matter with stories. Even if the topic isn’t one you’d normally find interesting, the stories draw you in—and stay with you over time.

This kind of lasting impact is the stuff of brand dreams. Sadly, for many brands, these dreams never become reality. Most of us forget the power of story as we grow up, and corporate culture is about as grown-up as it gets. But all it takes is one real-life experience to remind us that stories have power, power that we can tap into if we’re not too afraid to reach out and take hold of it.

Hero image credit: Museum Hack

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