Tuesday, December 23, 2014

How Museum Hack Transforms Museum Tours: Interview with Dustin Growick

A new company in New York, Museum Hack, is reinventing the museum tour from the outside in. They give high-energy, interactive tours of the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The tours are pricey, personalized, NOT affiliated with the museums involved… and very, very popular.

Today on Museum 2.0, an interview with Dustin Growick. Dustin is a science instructor at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) by day, Museum Hack tour developer/leader at AMNH by night. 

How did you first get involved with Museum Hack? 

Dustin: About a year ago I met a couple of people from Museum Hack at a conference. They were “preaching the museum gospel” in NYC via alternative tours at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was intrigued and curious to learn more, but also skeptical of the merits of an outside group running roughshod in The Met.

So I went on a tour…and experienced the museum in an entirely new way. I heard incredible—and often salacious—stories behind hidden gems I’d walked past numerous times. We interacted with the art and with each other through dynamic photo challenges, kinesthetic activities, and conversations. We discussed impressionism from Manet to Monet, and delved deeper in pointillism and Greek sculpture. Heck, I even learned about a 17th century German drinking game. For the first time in a long time, I was personally interacting and engaging with the museum, the collection, and with complete strangers in a way that highlighted the art. 

When the opportunity to design my own two-hour museum adventure at the American Museum of Natural History presented itself, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been leading my own Museum Hack tours at AMNH for about 9 months now. The tours boil down to three key things: engagement, relevance and fun. I want to help people find interactive and accessible points of entry and give them the tools to curate their own experience during every museum visit.

Can you give an example of the kind of Museum Hack activity that makes this different from other museum tours? 

Here’s an example that I experienced on that first tour of the Met. While in the American Portrait Gallery, we played a game called Matchmaker Matchmaker. Here’s how it goes:
  • Take a few minutes to allow a subject in one of the paintings to “find you”. It can be a human or an animal, and they can be the main focus of the piece or some strange-looking fellow lurking in the background. Go to whatever piques your interest and draws you in. 
  • Use both the posted information and your imagination to come up with a simple backstory for this individual. What is their name? Why are they in this scene? Where did they get that phenomenal feather boa? 
  • Find a partner or get matched with a partner. You now have exactly two minutes to concoct the epic love story that brings together the two characters you’ve chosen. 
  • As you stand amongst the portraits, share your tale of deception, love, mystery, and intrigue with the rest of the group. 
During this simple, ten-minute activity, we curated our own experience by practicing “high levels of noticing” and by investigating museum signage on the wall and online. We were encouraged to use our smartphones to search accession numbers if we wanted to dig deeper than the copy on the wall. We shared what captivated and spoke to us on a personal level, not just what we were told was “important." But perhaps most significantly, we used the art and the subjects therein as jumping off points for bringing the museum collection to life.

Who is the audience for Museum Hack? You are a museum insider and a content geek. But I know that Nick Gray, the Museum Hack founder, often emphasizes that Museum Hack is for people who don’t love (or even like) museums. 

We at Museum Hack have gone back and forth about our target audience: is it people that don’t like museums that we want to convert, or people who want a more personal experience, or people who want an active museum experience?

I don’t think anyone who doesn’t like museums would ever pay for a tour. Then again, many of our most passionate participants are somewhat ambivalent towards museums--or people who are daunted by the Met or AMNH and want a more personalized experience. I think of us guides as “museum personal trainers”. Whether you’re an art history buff, a professional athlete, or don’t think you even like museums, sometimes all you need is a little help using the equipment.

How do you advertise Museum Hack? If you want to get people who are not already interested in museums, how would they even know to look for you? 

Social media and word of mouth. It started with word of mouth, and then it got much, much bigger. Now a ton of our business comes from TripAdvisor reviews and Zerve - a ticketing website. We’re one of the top-rated destination tours to do in NYC. The reviews are so positive. And then during the tours themselves, we’re hashtagging, tweeting - that is promotional too.

When we became more known on these trip planning websites, it shifted our audience. It used to be mostly young New Yorkers. Now we have a larger and more diverse audience, including a lot of tourists who are thinking of going on tours anyway.

Are there differences between the Museum Hack experience at the Met and AMNH? I imagine that there are a lot more presumed barriers to break down at an art museum than a science museum. Dinosaurs seem pretty accessible. 

There’s a certain level of assumed stuffiness or pretention at the Met. We do a good job of breaking down those boundaries--and maybe those tours involve a little more swearing and silliness. As far as AMNH goes, there’s a little bit of that, but we focus more on offering a more personal experience, finding ways to engage with things in the space and make them personally relevant to you. One of the big ones is that we bring the people behind the artifacts to life. I don’t think on a normal tour they talk so much about the badass character and life experience of the explorers and revolutionaries behind the specimens.

How do you start a Museum Hack tour in a way that signals the different experience ahead? How do you manage the diverse people on the tour who may want different things from it? 

We have a specific opening activity to bring the group together. We huddle up, share what you should expect from the tour, and introduce everyone. Everyone puts their hands in the middle--like a sports team--and does a cheer. From the start, you are face to face with strangers. We use language throughout the tour to encourage the interpersonal, e.g. “make eye contact with two new museum friends.”

It also helps that we generally sell out at 8 people, and the guide always has a co-host if the group gets that big. Having two guides means we can do split stops at some places, giving some people one experience and some another. It allows a little more freedom, and it also gives people many voices and personalities to engage with.

It seems like there are two ways to look at Museum Hack. One is that you have completely reimagined what a museum tour can be, and for whom. The other is that you have produced the most excellent version of a museum tour—more engaging, more personalized, more entertaining. Which description do you think is more accurate? 

That’s a tough question. I think that for the two museums in which we work, it might be A. But for museums in general, it's B. There are definitely elements of what we do in use at other institutions and in other contexts, and this leads me to believe that B is a more accurate description. But as far as The Met and AMNH go, I think we've totally reimagined the tour experience (A).

How has Museum Hack informed your day job as a museum educator? 

It has made me a better educator and added tremendous value for the audiences with which I work, both at NYSCI and on Museum Hack tours. Ultimately, it hinges on coming back—time after time—to the same five questions:
  1. Why should my audience care about [insert content]? 
  2. How does [insert content] relate to their lives and their interests?
  3. What are the tangible points of relevancy that will engage my learners on a personal level? 
  4. Am I giving people the tools necessary to curate their own museum experience during repeat visits? 
  5. What is my “ask” of my audience? What are their “next steps”? 

Museum Hack let me step outside the routine context of my normal scope of work to really explore the core concepts of interactivity, engagement and relevancy. It’s made the museum experiences I facilitate more enjoyable, longer-lasting, and much more meaningful.

But you don’t have to take my word for it: next time you’re in New York, shoot me an e-mail. We’d love to give you a first-hand taste of the Museum Hack special sauce, and prove to you why we truly believe that Museums Are F***ing Awesome.

You can share your questions and comments directly with Dustin here in the comments section or by emailing him at dustin@museumhack.com
blog comments powered by Disqus