Kevin Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Parks Service’s National Center for Preservation technology and training. Today we join NCPTT’s Jason Church as he speaks with Ethan Angelica, tour guide and VIP Partnerships Coordinator, and Diana Montano, Tour Operations and Project Coordinator. Both are with the New York-based Museum Hack. In this podcast, the pair are going to talk about how Museum Hack is changing the way we view museums.
Jason Church: We are here talking about the company you’re both with, Museum Hack. Ethan, you’re a tourguide and also in charge of VIP partnerships?
Ethan Angelica: That’s correct. Yep I work directly with museums who want our help reimagining adult museum experience.
Jason Church: And Diana you’re with tour operations and also a project coordinator, is that correct?
Diana Montano: That’s right, I just make sure the tours are running smoothly and behind the scenes with a lot of the projects I just make sure that all of the things are going well and all of the scheduling stuff is happening.
Jason Church: Tell our listeners a little bit about Museum Hack. Our listeners are used to sort of a whole range of technology and high-end things but you guys are doing something very different. Not necessarily technology, but you’re doing something very different with the museum experience. Tell us about what that is and what Museum Hack is.
Ethan Angelica: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. With a name like Hack a lot of people think that we’re tech folks and I get calls from app developers every single day, but actually we are far more low-tech than that. Museum Hack is trying to reimagine what adult museum experience looks like sort of on the ground level. It was founded by a man named Nick Gray, who is our fearless leader, who was not a museum regular himself, was not really going to cultural institutions or had a strong relationship with them. He came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is sort of our first location, on a romantic date and fell in love with the place and wanted to start creating tours specifically for his friend group, for people who are between the ages of 21 and 35, who may not have a relationship with these cultural institutions. Maybe they’re something that they go to visit when their parents are in town, but they’re not regularly, actively a part of it.
He created all of these tours. He created a tour on his own, and his friends started signing up and then their friends told their friends and it became this sort of underground thing to do in New York City. A blog wrote about him and over 1,000 people signed up for the tour, at which point he realized maybe this is a real thing.
So, that was when the first group of guides were brought on, that’s when I joined the company, and since then we’ve been trying to create non-traditional, reverently irreverent museum adventures in some of our favorite museums. We’ve taken an entertainment first approach to education. We move fast, we make people feel like they’re being a little bit sneaky, and we try to give them an experience that makes them fall in love with the space, learn a little bit more about it, and then really, really want to come back.
About two and a half years ago was when I joined up. You joined 8 months ago?
Diana Montano: About, yeah.
Ethan Angelica: Yeah, 8 months ago. In that brief time we’ve moved just from one museum in New York to two museums where we run public tours and almost 4 or 5 more where we do private tours and then two additional cities. We’re in DC, at the National Gallery of Art, and San Francisco at the de Young Museum. Then we’ve worked with museums across the country and literally around the world on consulting and professional development projects.
Jason Church: You also teach classes for other people to learn, sort of this new style, correct?
Ethan Angelica: Oh, definitely. I just got back from a zoo in the state of Mississippi where I was teaching their zookeepers and some of the folks there about some of the story telling and activity design that we do. We also have started doing something we call Museum Hack Boot Camp here in New York City where we have museum professionals come to spend a long weekend with us designing and eventually presenting Museum Hack-style tours at the Met, which is really fun and really exhausting.
Jason Church: For you and the participants, right?
Ethan Angelica: For everybody. We all walk out feeling really good but also wanting to take a long nap.
Diana Montano: Yeah, absolutely.
Jason Church: What kind of training do your tour guides at Museum Hack get?
Diana: What kind of training, that is a really insane question with an even more insane answer. Our training takes a long time actually, from start to finish it usually takes about 2 to 3 months. That’s because what we do is not an exact science and everyone does it their own way. We usually bring people on as what we call a Co-host, and people will actually do a little bit each tour. They support their lead guides, who are leading tours for anyone from public tour people who are just visiting New York City or live in New York City and will sign up for a tour online, or our corporate clients who come in for a team building tour, or our private clients who want some sort of party or another event that they are looking to host with us as the runners of the event.
These Co-hosts watch what their tour guides do, they get feedback from their specific pieces that they present on the tours, and they’ll do a little bit of improvising themselves and that, like I said, that takes anywhere from 2 to 3 months depending on the guide, depending on how quickly they work, depending on how many tours they can be on. It does take a long time, and everyone does it in their own, very different way because every tour guide, actually, at the end of those 2 months, will be able to present 2 hours worth of content and be able to pretty much talk and entertain for two hours, which is a really hard thing to do, especially in the Museum Hack style, as you said, of education, not second, but entertainment before education. It takes a long time to get really good at that.
Ethan Angelica: I think one thing that is why it takes so much time, like Diana is saying, is that guides are empowered to create their own route. We give them training in story telling, we give them training in tour structure, we give them training in what we call scaffolding, which is our techniques to create a museum tour as being a fully social experience, but then they are tasked with building it themselves. We give them the toolkit, they have to build the castle.
They’re having to spend hours and hours in the museums doing their own research, developing content that they are really excited and passionate about so that they maintain that sense of energy and joy and wonder and inspiration that they have throughout the entire museum experience.
Diana Montano: Exactly. You can always tell which pieces the tour guides have done themselves and been really inspired by because they’re eyes light up, they get really excited, they smile a lot more, they get people moving around, and those are the pieces that we really encourage our tour guides to focus on because when they’re having a good time, the people on the tour are having a good time too.
Jason Church: Even if you’ve been to the Met multiple times, even with Museum Hack, you’re going to get a different tour with every tour guide.
Diana Montano: You’re going to get a different tour, probably a month after, with the same tour guide as well because they’ll discover new things, be bored of the pieces they showed the last time, be like, “You know, we’re not going to that one painting that’s upstairs. We’re going to this one painting that’s around the corner instead because I’ve talked about that painting for the last month and I want to show you something new.” We encourage all of our guides to do that because, like I said, that’s when their excitement really shows through and it allows the guests to get excited about the museum too.
Jason Church: Now, seeing some of the reviews online, it seems like the customers have a very positive response. Tell me more about the response the museums have to Museum Hack.
Ethan Angelica: That’s a great question. You know, when we’re working with museums in the capacity that you’d see us with online, going to buy a ticket to a museum tour, we are working with these groups sort of as a third party provider, meaning that we are buying tickets through their group services department, doing all of our own advertising to bring in an audience.
What museums really respond to and get out of the experience is we essentially act as a revenue drive and an audience drive for them. We’re reaching out to an audience that may not necessarily be attracted to the current offering that the museum has and we’re offering an additional access point. We’re reaching out, saying, “If this seems interesting, why don’t you come and try this with us,” with the goal that we’re sort of hyping up the museums so much that they’re so excited that they want to come back on their own and bring their friends and start that relationship with the institution. We’re not poaching people who are already coming. Everybody who comes to a Museum Hack tour is coming as part of a pre-purchased experience, meaning they reached out and came with us. We didn’t grab them as they were walking into the museum.
In many ways, that is really positive, but also we do bring revenue for a lot of the museums that we work with, it’s a donation to get into the museums. Through their group services departments, we’re paying the full museum admission, which can be as much as a third of our ticket price. In many ways we’re not only bringing these groups, new audience and people who might have been dubious about the experience initially, but we’re also bringing them a decent source of income, which I know is very inspiring for me. Museums tend to like those two things, I tend to find. That’s when we get a lot of positive feedback from them.
Jason Church: Now Ethan, what is your background? How did you get involved with Museum Hack?
Ethan Angelica: Oh goodness. I came at this sort of backward-wise. I went to school for the incredibly useful combination of theater and Middle Eastern Studies which basically, I say, qualifies me to talk to people and research stuff. I fell into museums in a backwards way. I spent the first ten years of my career out of college as a professional actor and I traveled all over the country in film and in touring theater and here in New York, but my day job was doing education work for the Central Park Zoo. I was part of an outreach program that they have. I noticed that as my interest in being an actor was waning, the number of hours and the amount of work I was doing at the zoo was increasing significantly.
I realized that this whole informal education-type thing, the idea of, “How do I engage an audience that might not be expecting me to be there telling them about things?” was something that really got me excited and was something I really loved doing.
Just as I was sort of deciding I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue acting as much anymore, I saw an application for Museum Hack and I said, “This looks too good to be true,” and I applied and did an audition for them and they liked it and did some more research and story telling for them and they seemed to like that and was brought on. As the company continued to grow I sort of grew with them and suddenly I was starting to work with ticketing partnerships and then I started working directly with museums and I started negotiating some of our first workshop opportunities and helped design those workshops. At some point it just turned out that I was working at this thing as though it was a full-time job and so I decided to make it formal and I’ve been full-time with Museum Hack for a little more than a year now.It’s not where I ever thought I would be, but I’m certainly loving it.
Jason Church: Diana, some of our listeners may recognize you, I know I did. You used to have a YouTube channel called Diana Does Museums.
Diana Montano: You can’t tell, but I just put my hand over my face when you said that.
Yeah. I started that as a personal project during grad school because I realized that what I loved doing was teaching in really different ways. I had gotten my degree as an art educator in my undergraduate degree and found that the public school system was just not where I wanted to be. I started pursuing a lot of other ways that I could teach that wasn’t that way and I fell upon a YouTube channel that I really liked watching called The Brain Scoop. It’s hosted by a woman named Emily Graslie and now she’s at the Field Museum. I was like, “You know what, I want to do that. I want to do it a little bit differently, but I want to do something like that. I think that’s a great way to get a lot of people interested in museums and I can use this as an excuse to travel and see museums and also teach other people about museums while I go to see them.”
I did that for a few months. One of my last videos that I did was about Museum Hack. I pretty much had heard about it and I emailed Nick just on a whim saying, “Hey, do you mind if I do a video? It’s free. I’ll just do it because I like you guys, want to just talk about how awesome you are.” I went on a tour with both Dustin and Zach, who are at the National History Museum and Kate, who was at the Met. They kept bothering me for months, saying, “You know, we love what you do. Come on, come join us, we’ll figure out a job for you, that sounds great.”
I was, at the time, finishing a grad degree in Museum Studies and I said, “You know, I’ve got a lot on my plate right now, call me back in three months.” “I need a few more months, call me back in a few months.”
He would not leave me alone and I’m very glad that he didn’t. I’ve been working for Museum Hack since June of last year and I started just picking up things that people didn’t want to do because we’re all very busy people and creative people who are so good at this job and make this job exactly what it’s supposed to be, which is just having fun in museums, and they’re so good at it. Being good at that means sometimes you’re maybe not good at the operational things. What I learned is that I am good at those things and that was where I just decided to keep piling more stuff onto my plate.
Now I help with project management as well, helping to make sure that when we get these big projects with other clients, either museums or some corporate clients we’ve been working with doing brand hacking or any other kind of event that they’d like us to help with, I help lay out the timelines for those things, make sure that expectations are clear from our team and from the team that is hiring us and make sure that it’s totally on the right path.
Not the job I expected either. I though I would be a low-level educator at a museum. I do miss being in museums sometimes, but I get a lot of opportunities to be in them still, doing this job, and I’m very happy doing it.
Jason Church: Some of the tours that Museum Hack does are thematic, correct?
Diana Montano: That’s right. Right now we have a feminist tour called Bad ass Bitches and that’s been running for a few months now, so super successful. We love that so much. The idea is that we talk about the ladies that either are or are not on display at the Met, of which there are many, and why it’s important to see the Mt from this perspective as well as all of the other perspectives that we or the museum provides. Another one we sometimes run is Jews at the Met: the Chosen Tour, which is a super fun historical look at Judaism and Jewish history from that perspective. In the Met we have Big Game Met which is actually hosted by Ethan himself.
That’s been in the works for a long time and we love that tour, it’s fabulous. We’re also right now developing a tour about the intersections of art and science and how the Met has a lot of ways you can see science from the artworks that are on display.
Jason Church: Very good. You said you’ve reached out, not only to the Met, but you said you have tours in DC and the de Young in San Francisco as well.
Ethan Angelica: That’s right. Those are public tours where you could just buy a ticket like you would at the Met.
Jason Church: Is there anything else that I didn’t ask, or you wanted to talk about, that you’d like to add?
Ethan Angelica: I guess I’m interested to hear a little bit from Diana about how, because I know your audience is one that typically thinks about technology and ways that you can use technology. We’re very much interested in what a social interaction in a museum looks like. Everyone’s in their phones all day, and we’re all on our computers, or looking at iPads. For us, the idea is to get people out of that mode and get them interacting with each other, but we’ve still managed to work technology into the equation in a more informal way that allows us to use things like our phones or tools that we have with them
I’m wondering if Diana can talk a little bit about what that experience looks like on a Museum Hack tour.
Diana Montano: Sure, yeah. We use technology in a lot of different ways. One of the ways is that we encourage our guides to have smartphones or tablets. Pretty much everyone does. To use that in a way that’s really beneficial when they’re standing in front of an artwork so that they can refer to other things. A lot of ways that our guides have used that is by comparing an artwork in the museum to one that is not currently on display.
For instance a tour guide talks about an artwork by Artemisia Gentileschi, who is a female artist from the Renaissance era and she compares her artwork to one that is one display at the Met and both of them are showing a really gruesome scene, but she shows the difference between the two. You really can’t talk about it if you don’t have that artwork right in front of you and she is able to sort of zoom in on the iPad and sort of show people like, “Check out these blood spurts, aren’t they amazing?” That’s because she talked to Galileo about the science that would make this work. It really allows her to show people artwork without it having to be on display which is really useful.
We also get a lot of our images from the Met’s collection online, which they have been so amazing, they have a lot of artworks that are online, just the photos and everything, and that helps us a lot to do, not just our research, but in person on the tour to use those photos, and they’re super high-quality.
Ethan Angelica: I’m curious, can you talk a little bit about how, maybe, we get guests to use the technology that they have to interact with objects or to help personalize the experience for themselves?
Diana Montano: Yeah, so it’s not just that. That’s the way a lot of our guides use them, but we also play a lot of games with our phones. We’ll create these activities that have people using both the people who are in front of them as well as their technology to interact with each other.
We play a game called Matchmaker and Matchmaker is really fun because it asks people, “Go out into this gallery and I want you to find a face, a face that you really like. Take a photo of it, zoom in on just the face, come back here. Take 30 seconds to do that.” They’ll come back with those photos and be like, “Okay, the person that you’re standing next to here in the museum, you’re now their buddy. Turns out, the photos that you’ve taken of the photos on your phones, those two people just fell in love. Awe. So sweet. I want you to make up a story. I want you to tell me how these people fell in love and tell me, did it end well? Give us a little bit of the details. Did it end well or was it kind of a sad love story?”
They take a few minutes, they talk with each other, they create this whole love story between themselves, not even looking at the plaques, maybe using a little bit of the rest of the artwork, looking closely and seeing what details are in the artwork that they may have missed when they were taking the faces photo, and then they come back together, they tell their story together. They’ll say the person’s name, tell how they fell in love, and we’ll go around the circle doing that entire thing with these people in pairs who often don’t come together. We often pair people up who didn’t come together and that way they’re creating a story with someone they didn’t even know before the tour.
They create the story, they tell out the story, and then we talk to them about a woman named Tracy Chevalier who actually goes to museums and writes stories sort of in this way, where she loves learning about the art, but what she likes more is actually just creating her own story. We use that as an inspiration not just to allow people to listen to the facts that we tell them, but also it’s okay to make up a story if you want, but also this is a great way to meet new people in the museum, just on the tour, or in your life.
Ethan Angelica: What I really like about this is I think it is an imaginative way that we have remixed some of the goals that many museums have. In this way we’re asked people to look closely, to make personal connections, to bring a part of themselves to an object, whether that be a piece of art of an historic object, specimen from science, but we did it in a way that subverted their expectations. I think that is where a lot of our approach comes from, is that we are attempting to get people to do these things that make them feel closeness and connection to objects, whether they be art objects, historic objects, or scientific objects, but doing it in a way that almost tricks them into doing it without knowing that that’s what we’re up to.
I think Matchmaker is a great way to do that and it allows them to use that tool in their pocket. Taking a photo or looking something up on their phone, which is an activity we do outside of cultural spaces, in those cultural spaces.
Jason Church: Sounds like a lot of fun. I hope to take one of your tours one day.
Ethan Angelica: Yeah, most certainly.
Jason Church: Well Ethan and Diana, thank you so much for talking to our listeners today, we really appreciate it and we hope everyone can come experience Museum Hacks.
Ethan Angelica: Yeah, definitely. If you want more information on us you can check out museumhack.com or we’re on twitter at @MuseumHack. Tweet us, we’ll tweet you back.
Jason Church: Fantastic, go out and tweet them.
Diana Montano: Thanks, Jason, so much. It was great talking to you.
Jason Church: You too, thank you.
Diana Montano: Thanks.
Ethan Angelica: Bye.
Kevin Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast show notes at www.ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.