They’re museum tours for people who don’t like museums, and Nick Gray, founder of private museum tour company Museum Hack, was once one of those people. museumhack.com
“I used to hate museums. I thought they were the most boring places in the world, and some of them still are,” Gray says.
Today he’s in charge of an extraordinarily well-received enterprise that offers alternative tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (such as the Big Gay Met Tour) as well as in Washington, DC, and San Francisco. On TripAdvisor, a Museum Hack tour at the Met is one of the highest-ranking things to do in New York City, with a five-star rating.
“There are three things that make a successful museum tour: guides, games and gossip,” says Gray, who believes today’s audiences have to be entertained before they can be educated. “We don’t hire guides based on whether they have a PhD in art history. The most important thing is that they’re great storytellers.”
Guides engage the group with games and activities, and the “gossip” comes from finding out fascinating and unusual facts – the “juicy backstories” – about the art.
“The tours are two or three times more fast-paced than an ordinary museum tour,” says Gray. “A lot of our target audience is in the ADD [attention deficit disorder] generation – always on their phones, always going from one thing to another. So that’s the kind of speed we maintain.”
Tours are conducted by guides who have designed their own unique routes through the museum, based on their own passions and interests. There are six or seven people in a group, and the price per person is US$59, including museum admission. At the Met, Museum Hack is registered with the Group Services office, in a similar way a foreign language tour guide would be.
Musuem Hack also offers teambuilding tours, family-friendly tours and tours for big groups like bachelorette parties. It works with museums around the world to do staff workshops and training programmes.
The company, which has grown to have more than 24 employees and has hosted about 6,000 people on its tours, has been branching out into other areas and was invited by a global sports company to train its staff in Musem Hack’s storytelling techniques.
The Hackers also worked recently with a newly renovated luxury heritage hotel in Times Square, the Knickerbocker. “The Knickerbocker hired us to do their staff training. The hotel has all these crazy stories about Babe Ruth and the Titanic, for example. We trained their staff to be tour guides to tell these stories,” Gray says.
The business has come along way since Gray quit his job to focus on Museum Hack in July 2013. The definitive moment came a couple of years before that, when his opinion about museums was challenged.
“I was brought to the Met on a date,” he says. “The museum was empty and my date basically gave me a private tour, which unlocked a sense of curiosity about history and art that I never knew I had.”
Gray began touring his friends around the Met and soon his friends were bringing their friends. “Soon I was doing so many tours that I decided to establish a business.”
Now it’s about attracting Millennials. Gray says they have to be engaged at the speed and pace they’re used to.
“I would love it if museums stole our ideas and put us out of business,” Gray says. “I know that will never happen, but if they did steal our ideas then great. It’s important to engage fresh audiences with art.”