JMM Hacks the Museum with Museum Hack!
“Professional development takes many forms,” says JMM director, Marvin Pinkert, “whether or not ‘Museum Hack’ represents a path we might follow, in the future it is without doubt a ‘best practice’ in the field of museum tours. I was delighted that the whole professional team had the opportunity to experience it.”
Tracie: When I saw Nick Gray, the CEO of Museum Hack, give the keynote address at the Mid Atlantic Association of Museums (MAAM) in the Fall of 2016, I was intrigued. I had heard of the company before, but this was my first in-depth view of what this irreverent organization (their motto is “Museums are F***ing Awesome”) actually does. Gray’s address at MAAM was full of passion for museums and art. He was funny and crass and smart. He reported meteoric growth of his crazy idea (from hobby tours for his friends 5 years ago to a multi-million-dollar business today). The ballroom was full of museum professionals on the edge of their seats.
His presentation wasn’t perfect. At a meeting whose theme was about the importance of inclusiveness and accessibility, the $90 – $150 per person price tag of Museum Hack tours definitely gave folks pause. Gray was only able to say something like “we’re working on it” to the conference attendee who asked him about how very white and mostly male his staff seemed to be. Still, it was clear to me that this kooky guy was on to something. When I got back to Baltimore I told my colleagues about it. We decided that we wanted to learn more. I suggested that we take the whole staff to a Hack Tour of the National Gallery—the closest Museum Hack location. Last week, we finally made it happen.
The Museum Hack tour was like and not-like any museum tour I’ve ever been on. From the get-go, our tour guide told us that art history, composition, symbolism and all that are really interesting, but that if that’s what we wanted, we should buy a book, because that’s not what she was going to talk about. From there we did a group, hands-in cheer of “Mu-seum!” (down on the mu up on the seum) and then took off from there to the crown jewel of the collection. We spent a little time talking about the subject of the painting, and then got a lot of history about how the National Gallery acquired it.
The focus of our conversation about the rare Da Vinci painting of Ginevra de’Benci was the intrigue that surrounded it—from the “platonic” love affair that was broken off by Ginevra’s marriage to the James-Bond-esque suitcase in which it was transported to the museum (not unlike one that, as I type, is returning the Friedenwald volumes to the National Library of Israel!). We were invited to play mental and creative games with the artwork we encountered and with each other. In short, it was really fun.
In the few days since our National Gallery Hack, JMM staff have been having an ongoing conversation in various areas around Lloyd Street: “what if we had visitors…” and “we could invite people to…” I don’t know what the Museum Hack inspired, irreverent version of the JMM tour will look like. In fact, it may never happen. But even if there isn’t a direct product we can point to as a result of our shared experience, it has us all thinking about the Museum, our collections and our buildings in different ways.
Devan: As an artist and educator, I enjoyed the Museum Hack tour because it provided an opportunity to explore the works within the gallery while giving more backstory and historical information. In addition, I would imagine that interactive tours like those would be beneficial for young people who are visiting cultural institutions like the National Gallery of Art as well as others around the country. Not only would it spark more interest but assist with retention of the information so there’s at least one conscious or subconscious takeaway from the visit for them.
Karen: I’ve already retold some of the stories we heard from our tour guide, Hannah, on Friday. The long, sad story of Ginevra de’Benci had too much detail for me to remember, but I got some great mileage out of how Paul Mellon, art collector extraordinaire, was taken in by Han van Meegeren’s Vermeer forgeries. Hannah kept us interested, and moving for two hours and the time flew, although I have to say I was very grateful when she took a break—and broke the rules—and handed out chocolate.
Some deductions about Museum Hack’s “rules” for tours that engage: 1. Use naughty words: every comedian since Lenny Bruce (at least) knows it thrills the audience; 2. Tell naughty stories (ditto); 3. Follow the money: isn’t this part of art’s allure? 4. Talk fast and walk fast; 5. Break the rules (see above: we must never, NEVER eat in the museum); 6. Have a through line—a story or activity that can thread throughout the entire tour; 7. Foster a little friendly competition, but not so much that your group can’t bond. Bottom line: I had a lot of fun!
Deborah: As a mother who has watched the Disney film The Little Mermaid far too many times to count, I was particularly taken with the story that our amazing tour guide Hannah shared in front of the George De La Tour painting of Mary Magdalene (The Repentant Magdalen). Aside from the fact that the painting is stunning, Hannah connected the painting to a major plot point in the Dan Brown books surrounding a conspiracy to keep secret the fact that Mary Magdalene and Jesus had a child together. She then asked us to think about how this painting might be related to The Little Mermaid.
We were stumped until Hannah pulled out her trusty iPad and pulled up the scene from the movie where Ariel is singing “Part of Your World” about her longing to be human in a cave where she’s stashed all of her human treasures. Lo and behold, one of the things in her cave is a painting of Mary Magdalene from the same series that we were looking at! (Specifically, the painting Magdalen with the Smoking Flame.) This detail (along with the fact that both De La Tour’s Mary and Ariel have red hair) has led to an abundance of conspiracy theories involving Disney.
Marvin: I was impressed with the way that our guide engaged the audience. One exercise involved finding potential companions for the unhappy young subject of DaVinci’s painting Ginevra de’Benci and capturing their images on our cell phones. Another involved creating a tableau vivant of Copley’s painting of a shark. While an art museum is very different than a history museum (the Lloyd Street ark doesn’t really lend itself to a tableau), the thought process about how to put the visitor into the action is something that I hope will animate our future thinking about tour experiences.
Graham: While I have been to the National Gallery of Art many times, I have mostly explored the galleries on my own, so I was excited to go on Museum Hack’s tour. I enjoyed hearing some of the backstories about how the art was acquired and shipped to the NGA. I also liked learning about a forged Vermeer painting, international intrigues and exploring hidden corners of the Museum. I found the tour to be very high energy and interactive. It was fun re-enacting John Copley’s painting Watson and the Shark and posing in front of sculptures. It was also entertaining playing games like imagining romances between figures in artwork.
I liked how our guide incorporated technology into her tour, such as with her iPad and our smart phones. I appreciated receiving chocolate halfway through the day as a way to help alleviate “museum fatigue.” I believe that these kinds of tours are a great way to reengage millennials at museums. I look forward to working with our team to see how we may be able to incorporate some of these elements into our tours of Lloyd Street and B’nai Israel synagogues.
Joanna: The Museum Hack tour was a lot of fun, and not only because it’s always better to be in an art museum on a Friday. I’m not usually a tour-taker, but Hannah’s style – presumably typical of the Museum Hack guides in general – was informative, funny, brisk, and colloquial, making for both an entertaining morning (any morning that involves a tableau vivant is likely to be a good one) and a nice validation of my own style of tour-giving, which if not brisk is definitely colloquial.
That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but used in combination with more traditional formats, I think this type of tour can bring in new audiences, and give us a way to tell other, less academic or “main theme” stories about artifacts, art, and documents. But please, no tableaux vivant in the JMM galleries without making sure there’s plenty of floor space!
Trillion: Working in public programs I was especially excited to attend the Museum Hack tour last week at the National Gallery of Art. I was hoping to find inspiration for future programs and I wasn’t disappointed. One of the things I found most enjoyable was the different ways in which we were encouraged to engage with the collection. Knowing a little about Museum Hack I anticipated posing beside art and recreating famous paintings as a team (technically referred to as tableau vivant) but what I found really interesting was our search for a suitor for Ginevra de’ Benci. It was a wonderful way of ensuring that we continued to explore and engage with the many pieces not featured ono our tour. As we shared our selections at the end of the day it was interesting to see artworks that hadn’t previously caught my eye.
Rachel: I’ve been to the National Gallery many times before – it’s one of my favorite places in DC to grab a few moments of calm and delight (I particularly love the many fountains and their related, ever-changing plant accessories – this time there were tiny potted orange trees with actual oranges on them!). I’ve even been lucky enough to get a specialized tour from Art Services Manager Daniel Shay (his daughter, Ginevra Shay, now the artistic director at The Contemporary, was once my winter intern in the photography collection!). But it is always fun to get a new perspective on a familiar favorite – and Museum Hack did not disappoint.
Being a “behind-the-scenes” type museum person, I especially enjoyed Hannah’s tales related to The Alba Madonna, including the Soviet sale of Hermitage paintings – and Russia’s desire to “borrow” the painting back at the end of the century. (If you meet Hannah, ask her about Titian’s Venus with a Mirror and its Russian reception!) Overall I loved the blend of facts about the pieces of art themselves with the stories of their journeys to the National Gallery.
Based on our post-tour lunch conversations and the many murmurings around the office, I think we can declare our Museum Hack experience a success!