Reimagining the Visitor Experience with Museum Hack

Museum Hack group shot

If you keep an eye on what’s happening in the USA Museum sector, you will have noticed Museum Hack. This dynamic organisation was created by CEO, Nick Gray, after he decided he wanted to reimagine the adult museum experience – especially for millennial audiences. Museum Hack provides an engaging and hands on approach to museum tours and was developed to offer new access points for people who think they don’t like museums and who crave a different option. The team now run hundreds of tours each year in museums in several states alongside consulting services to start-ups, museums, universities and visitor attractions.

The whole ethos of the organisation is slightly rock n roll, daring, social and ‘reverently irreverent’ and the team take pride in offering story based tours that are exhilarating and unique. AIM talked to Ethan Angelica, a Tour Guide with Museum Hack, to find out more about the organisation and how UK independent museums can transform their visitor experiences using Museum Hack principles. Charming, passionate and a lot of fun (he was dressed as a penguin when he gave Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman a tour) Ethan also provided some Museum Hack top tips that UK independent museums can put into practice.

AIM: Hi Ethan. Many thanks for this interview – can we start by asking you what impact has Museum Hack has had on the American museum sector?

EA: In many ways, I feel that we are pushing many museums to re-evaluate how they view and connect with their audiences. As part of my job, I get to speak with museum professionals around the world and hear their concerns. And it is often very much the same thing: we know we need to innovate, but we’re nervous about what that means. By showing that, as outsiders, we can build a sustainable audience, create jobs around the museum field, and develop programming that is attractive to a wide swathe of folks who aren’t necessarily coming to museums on their own, we’ve given traditionalists pause to think about how they might innovate and use elements of our reverent-irreverence, storytelling skills and passion-based discovery in their own work.

AIM:  What could UK independent museums do to become more accessible to their visitors?

EA: Listen to your audience, and then meet them where they are. The traditional museum experience will always have a place for sure, but it is not always the best way in for new folks. What happens if you ask people to use their smartphones to do informal research, play games or even take a selfie, since that’s what many visitors do in their daily lives? What if you scrapped the idea of a script and encouraged every guide, educator and staff member to do their own research and only speak about the objects that they are head-over-heels in love with, because we know visitors respond more to passionate storytelling than recited scripts? What if, as guides, we were just as opinionated as our guests? All of these are techniques Museum Hack has applied and shown to be effective. They are what our audience asks for, and we meet them there.

AIM: That’s good advice Ethan and worth applying – or at least trying – but why is listening to visitor feedback so important do you think?

EA: Visitors hold the key to unlocking their desired experience. All we have to do is ask. As museum professionals, we already know why we love museums, so we are not necessarily our target demographic. If the goal is to engage new and changing audiences, hearing them out and finding ways to meet their needs is essential. Yes…sometimes it is uncomfortable to learn that the way you talk about your favourite object is the part people consider the most boring bit of the experience. Yes, sometimes their feedback pushes us outside of our comfort zones. Yes…sometimes what guests are asking for can seem downright silly. But, what is the goal here? I believe that our job is to serve the public by giving them a way in to the incredible objects in our charge – if we don’t listen to what people want and give it to them, how can we be relevant?

AIM:  What would you say to encourage UK independent museums to try more adventurous methods of engaging visitors?

EA: Don’t be afraid to fail. If you are going to innovate, that fear is the first thing that needs to go out the window. Ask yourself what you believe you will never be able to do in a museum, and then figure out how to do it. I often hear traditional museum professionals meet some suggestions with the phrase, “Oh, we could never do that.” Are you sure? Have you tried? At Museum Hack, we ask guides to do “beta test” tours to ensure that they are constantly innovating.

AIM: Sounds good – what’s it like running a beta test tour?

EA: It’s terrific! You call up your friends, try out some new stuff, get feedback and keep the stuff that doesn’t suck. And sometimes it all sucks. And that’s OK. The real reason to do this is to make sure that you’re always pushing yourself to try new things. And, sometimes, you strike real gold. Through my beta test tours, I’ve figured out how to get visitors excited about Rothko via attempts at synaesthesia, helped remix the audio tour experience and learned that saying “Renoir sucks at painting” too loudly can get you in some serious trouble!

AIM: Ethan, do you have any advice for persuading boards of trustees to become more engaged in the visitor experience at their museum?

EA: Have them co-lead tours. Seriously. Every staff member at Museum Hack is required to be able to give a tour, regardless of whether they are regularly asked to do so. Why? Because now they get it. Now they see what’s happening on the ground, they understand what guests want, they’ve had to intimately explore engagement techniques themselves, and are now deeply into the mission. Who knows? Maybe they’ll give you some amazing ideas!

AIM: When you visit a museum as a visitor – what do you hope and expect from your visit Ethan?

EA: When I visit a museum, I want to have a dynamic experience. I want to have transporting, magical “aha” moments (little hits of dopamine, for the scientifically-inclined), and I want to feel like I can be myself. I want to feel comfortable enough that I can ask a question, and trust that it will be answered like I’m chatting with a super-smart friend. I want to feel like it’s OK to laugh, and it’s OK to be silent. It’s OK to snap a selfie, and it’s OK to stand in awe-struck reverence. In short, I want the museum to be open to allowing me to experience it on my terms, whatever those terms may be. And I suspect that those terms are a little different for everyone.

AIM: Thanks Ethan and Museum Hack for your time, is there anything else you would like to add?

EA: Visitors respond to passion and storytelling. It’s magical how effective this can be. Well-crafted stories and interactions – with solid narrative structure, just the right amount of information, excellent humour and good energy cause real, chemical changes in the brain that make the listener feel more connected to objects, people and places. That result is what visitors want, and what museums want. I believe that the better we can become at this, the better the visitor experience will be.

Museum Hack: Top Five Tips For An Exciting Visitor Experience

  • Figure out how to do the thing you’ve always wanted to do in a museum, but thought you couldn’t.
  • Banish the script and speak from the heart.
  • Keep trying new stuff, and don’t be afraid to fail.
  • Listen to your audience, and meet them where they are.
  • Have fun, and make sure your guests are too.

AIM would like to thank Nick Gray, Ethan Angelica and the Museum Hack team for their support.

You can find out more about Museum Hack here:

Museum Hack Website

Museum Hack Twitter @MuseumHack

Nick Gray Website 

Want to understand your visitor experience better? AIM members can take part in VisitorVerdict at discounted rates: AIM VisitorVerdict