Hack-Attack: Museum Hack and the National Park Service

Have you heard of Museum Hack? If not, the first thing you should know is that their company motto is “Museums are f***ing awesome.” If you go to their website, the first text you see is “This isn’t your Grandma’s museum tour” along with a video of people laughing in a museum. LAUGHING. Intrigued, I kept reading and discovered that Museum Hack brings small groups of people into large museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, and leads tours geared toward people between the ages of 21-35, but welcomes other ages as well, including families. Museum Hack’s tours run roughly two hours and have general themes such as “Political Scandal” or “Big Gay Met Tour” and are anything but boring. They are currently offering tours in New York City, Washington DC, Chicago, and San Francisco and do so in cooperation with the museum with a portion of the ticket cost being used to pay for museum admission. Museum Hack is a business that is for profit, but is also benefitting non-profits by attracting people who might not ordinarily walk through the doors.  During the tour, guests are invited to participate by taking photos (in accordance with museum policy), telling stories, playing games, working as a team, and being silly. This approach is heavy on the entertainment, but also lets visitors take away the stories and information they actively learned during the tour.

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Nikki, blog author and NMSC Museum Technician, in her natural habitat (a beautiful historic mansion in Newport!) taking a #museumselfie.

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a training by Museum Hack at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Site in Woodstock, VT. This training was mostly geared toward the interpretation and cultural resource staff at the park, but because of my interest in working with cultural resources and millennial-geared programming, I was also invited to attend. Let me tell you, I could not have had a better, nor more informative, time at this training.

The Museum Hack training was well structured and they taught us ways to engage, entertain, and educate museum visitors of a specific demographic that the National Park Service and many other cultural institutions are trying to attract: millennials. As a millennial myself, I am quite invested in learning and finding successful ways of getting people my age, into the parks. This training helped me think more critically about what we’re doing now and what we can do in the future to meet this goal. Currently, many National Park Sites (especially those with cultural history) offer an hour-long ranger guided tour. This format works for many people who are already visiting NPS sites, but leaves out a large group that either does not learn well with this format, or simply are looking for a shorter time commitment or something that works better with their schedule. If the National Park Service is committed to getting younger and more diverse groups into its parks, NPS staff need to think differently about how they’re bringing the information to the public. Some ways we can accomplish this:

  • Speak to visitors in a way they can relate to and won’t feel alienated by
    • This isn’t new information but it’s important; read your audience! If you’re leading a tour of professors and academics in the museum or related field, then it might be appropriate to incorporate words that may only have meaning within the field. However, the large majority of your visitors are there to see the site, learn a little, and have an experience. Remember that visitors are there for the cool stories they couldn’t find out about elsewhere, that’s why they decided to physically come to your site. Read your audience and speak to them in a respectful but casual way. This can be facilitated dialog, asking people to look something up on their phone, or simply making a joke (my personal favorite being a bad pun).
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Exploring fallout shelters with NPS and Museum Hack staff at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Site! Who doesn’t love a cozy fallout shelter? Photo courtesy of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Instagram @marshbillingsnps.

  • Museums, History, and Art can be FUN.
    • You read that right, fun. Museum Hack focuses heavily on entertaining the visitor with education being a bonus. Though many interpreters worry about tours being more entertainment and not enough learning, there is a way to strike a balance. Often times we forget we’re telling stories that we’ve heard many times before, but are brand new to our visitors. When you’re passionate and lively while telling those stories, people have more fun. I also can’t emphasize enough the importance of breaking up the tour with opportunities to laugh. Of course this isn’t always appropriate, especially when talking about controversial issues or hard topics in history, but if you’re telling a story, make that story come to life! If your tour group looks bored, change up your tour and re-engage them! Museum Hack often breaks up stretches of talking with games and other challenges to get people moving and involved. One of my favorite examples of this is asking the tour group at the beginning of the tour to think about a nick-name for Augustus St. Gaudens using only his initials. Even if your visitor is losing interest in something you’re saying, there’s a good chance that they’ll stay engaged with the challenge you assigned them at the beginning of the tour. Or, play a game! Challenge them to pick an object they could use in case of a zombie apocalypse and have them share it with the group. Really make the visitor feel like the tour is one-of-a-kind since they’re a part of it.
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Silly poses and photos mimicking beautiful artwork are *encouraged* on Museum Hack tours! Photo courtesy of Museum Hack.

 

  • Think outside the box.
    • So maybe you’re not going to start a revolution in the museum world by getting a bunch of millennials on your hour-long guided tour, even with the new tools in your tool kit. Why not think outside the box, or in our case, outside the house? Last summer I attended a yoga event in the backyard of a historic house. The event was wildly successful with well over 100 people in attendance, most of them in the “millennial” age range. Though yoga is not necessarily part of the museum’s mission, it is an easy entry point for people who wouldn’t normally visit a historic house museum. The museum also offered tours which some event attendees went on, and made a point to advertise their other more mission-connected programming to everyone at the event. Yoga and other outdoor activities are in demand for many millennials and many (including this one) enjoy doing these activities at new places, especially outdoors. Could yoga or another outdoor activity be the key to getting younger people into your park or site?

Now comes the hard part, sitting down and figuring out who your audience is and who you want it to be. Is one of the groups you want to attract millennials? Then embrace some of this advice and go out and market your institution as a fun place for that crowd! There are many museums in the Boston area that are doing just this with their “after hours” events including Boston Children’s Museum, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Peabody-Essex Museum, and the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, just to name a few. The important part is to think about your new audience’s time (when are they free? Likely not at 11am during the week) and the thing that sets your institution apart from the many other activities out there for this age group (food and drinks being a HUGE plus!). The skills I learned from Museum Hack are valuable skills for attracting people in the age group 21-35, but are obviously not entirely suitable for every audience. These tools I learned will help us in the National Park Service build our audience, but certainly are not the entire focus. It’s all about balance, keeping our current audience happy wile cultivating new audiences to propel us into the next century of the National Park Service.

 

Has your museum or institution tried anything new to get a different audience in the doors? What worked? What didn’t work? We’d love to hear more!

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About Nikki W.

Nikki is a museum technician and has a M.A. in historical archaeology from Boston University and a B.S. in geological sciences and history from Salem State University. Her areas of interest include historic ceramics, 17th and 18th century New England history, geoarchaeology, and American decorative arts.
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2 Responses to Hack-Attack: Museum Hack and the National Park Service

  1. Sarah says:

    Love this! Sarah from Morristown NHP here… My colleague and I attended a Museum Hack beta workshop in the city last year and felt similarly refreshed. I am pretty sure ROVA/MAVA hosted a similar workshop for their interp last month too, so parks are getting on board with audience-centered programming! I have also taken quite fondly to the design thinking model of prototyping millennial engagement practices. Check out our park blog and let’s chat more. morristownnhpmuseum.blogspot.com

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