Here is the full transcript of Museum Hack founder Nick Gray’s TEDx Talk: How I Learned to Stop Hating and Love Museums at TEDxFoggyBottom conference. This event occurred on April 3, 2015.
Nick Gray – Founder, Museum Hack
I hate museums. I think they are boring. The paintings have nothing to do with me. My feet hurt. Get me out of here. That’s how I felt until about four years ago when I had an amazing experience.
A woman brought me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a romantic date. Thank you very much. True story. It was our third date. This is The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A lot of you have probably been there. It’s the most popular museum in all of America. It’s the second most popular museum in the entire world, and yet, to me and my friends in New York City, this place, this museum, is just a tourist attraction. This is the type of place you go when your parents are in town. I didn’t have a relationship with it until that night.
She said, “Let’s go to the museum,” and we went. It was the middle of December on a Saturday night. The museums open late on Friday and Saturday nights. It looked something like this. As we walked around, she began to give me a private tour showing me things she liked. I saw paintings, and sculptures, Egyptian artifacts, and furniture.
I don’t know if it was the very romantic mood lighting that night, or maybe it was the snow falling down in Central Park, or maybe it was just having a very attractive woman talk to me. But something magic happened, and that night I fell in love with the museum. I’m not joking. I really fell in love with the museum. I started going there every single weekend.
I became obsessed. It unlocked within me a sense of curiosity about history and art that I never knew that I had I worked during the week. I sold electrical equipment for planes. But during the weekend, this became my new hobby. I did audio tours. I followed docents. I looked things up on Wikipedia. I found YouTube videos. I loved it so much that I started doing free tours for my friends.
These are some photos of those tours: me showing my friends around the museum, my favorite things. It’s helpful to keep in mind that I was a business major in college. I’ve never taken an art history class. These were not very sophisticated tours. They were basically ten cool things. I found, and three things that I wanted to steal.
On my tours, I would bring my friends to an object like this. This is a Goa stone case made in the early 1700s on the west coast of India meant to house a Goa stone. This was a ball about the size of a pool ball that the Jesuit priests believed had magical mystical properties. It was worth way more than its weight in gold. They thought that you could shave off a piece of a Goa stone and put it into a cup of tea, and it would cure any type of poison.
They thought that you could drop a Goa stone into the well, and it would cure the plague for a 100 miles around. These cases were incredible. During my tours, we would get down on our hands and knees and press our faces up to the glass. We would look — We would look at the craftsmanship. I would ask my friends, I would say, “Think about this. What would you put inside of it if you stole it?” Their answer, by the way, was usually chocolate or drugs.
So those were my museum tours. My friends told their friends, and their friends told their friends. It became like the go-to thing to do on a Friday or Saturday night in New York City. We did birthday parties that looked like this. A blog wrote about my tours, and the next day, 1,000 people emailed me wanting to join one of the tours. It was becoming a very full-time hobby.
I started to recruit my friends to help me out. I’m happy to tell you today that two years ago, I quit my job, and I have spent every day since then trying to reimagine the adult museum experience. The name of my company is — Thank you! – The name of my company is Museum Hack. I’m going to tell you what we do that is different from most museum tours and why I think this matters.
Three main things that make us different: guides, games, and gossip. Let’s start with guides because tour guides are the heart and soul of our business. They are the reason why visitors love us, come back to us, and tell their friends. We hire people from a diverse set of backgrounds. We hire scientists, art history majors, we hire actors, and educators. We hire people like this guy. His name is Miles. Miles loves the American wing, and he does this amazing “Washington crossing the Delaware”.
We hire people like this guy. This is Ethan. He is an educator. Ethan likes this painting. Here’s the thing. When we hire our tour guides, we think that storytelling is more important than art history. Today’s audiences have to be entertained before they can be educated. So we start with passion first. Our guides write all of their own routes. They come up with their whole tour because they have to talk about things that they are very, very excited about. You can imagine they have a lot to share.
On the average Museum Hack tour, you see two to three times as many objects as most museum tours. With us, you see 10, 15, sometimes 20 objects. We move so fast in fact that every single tour starts with a game. The guide says, “Listen Before we begin, I need everybody to huddle up and put your hands in the middle.” It’s really how all of our tours start. The guide says, “We need to move very quickly today. We have to act as a team. We’re going to start off with little cheer we’re going to say ‘MUSEUM,’ and we’re going inside.”
That’s really how all the tours start. They go MU-SE-UM, and they hustle inside to begin. We are selling museum adventures not museum tours. Have you ever been at an art gallery? You are looking at the art, and instead of feeling inspired or excited, you start yawning. You feel tired and overwhelmed. This is a real thing that happens. It is called gallery fatigue. We’ve developed a week of fatigue-fighting exercises to combat those; we’ll do yoga in the modern and contemporary gallery. We’ll do squats in the stairwells. We love to take pictures on our tours.
We encourage selfies. Let’s be honest, by the way, you look awesome in a museum. We love to take pictures, we do games, we have prizes, and we do challenges. We are trying to attract a whole new type of audience to the museum, people who think that maybe they don’t like museums. I’m so excited about what we are doing, but my favorite part of the tour is the gossip.