TOPICS > Arts

To woo millennials, museum tour group taps into the digital age

August 16, 2014 at 12:40 PM EDT
Amid declining museum attendance by young people as reported by the National Endowment for the Arts, a New York City group called "Museum Hack" aims to attract millennials by offering unconventional tours. These "sassy" outings tap into the outlook of digital age museum-goers, and encourage learning and participation. NewsHour Weekend's Hannah Yi reports.
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HANNAH YI: It’s Friday and in a few hours Ethan Angelica and Jessye Herrell will host a small get-together. They’re going through their checklist to make sure everything’s ready. There will be games and music, too.

Their agenda tonight is to recruit a new generation of museum-goers by helping them have fun once they get there. They say it’s important because of the declining museum attendance by young people.

SANDRA JACKSON-DUMONT: They haven’t historically been posited as the most hip spaces.

HANNAH YI: Sandra Jackson-Dumont oversees education programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She says many millennials – those between the ages of 18 and 33 – don’t go to museums because they’ve never had the right introduction.

SANDRA JACKSON-DUMONT: There were moments in time where arts education was a part of basic education like it was just normalized behavior. And there’s this new generation of folks then that represent in many ways a body of people that actually didn’t have arts education in school.

HANNAH YI: Jackson-Dumont says museums are also competing with a variety of cultural activities like food fairs, street art and even online lectures. Nick Gray is 32 years old and loves museums. He goes several times a week but knows he’s in the minority.

NICK GRAY: Maybe people had a bad experience when they were growing up at a museum. Maybe they were taken to museums as kids, and it was a snooze fest. It was super boring, or they were dragged there by their parents. And for one reason or another, the vast majority of people have checked out of museums.

HANNAH YI: So how do you get millennials to check into museums, and get them to keep going back? Gray decided to hire young museum lovers like Jessye Herrell and Ethan Angelica, and he created a company called museum hack.

With the permission from the Met and the American Museum of Natural History, his company gives small group tours. Their strategy is simple: jazz up the traditional tour by doing something completely different.

NICK GRAY: Some people in big museums still believe that the museum experience is meant for you to sit down in front of the object and let its majesty wash over you. And you will be baptized by the light of this awesome art.

You look at the objects inside of a museum that are placed there by curators who have done an awesome job, but are sometimes curating for the other curators and not for the visitors. If people come to the museum and they are not entertained, then they are gonna be tuned out.

HANNAH YI: Museum Hack typically caters to Millennials and parents with young children, charging $39 per person per tour in addition to the donation visitors are encouraged to make to the museum. The museum doesn’t charge the company anything to conduct the tours.

ETHAN ANGELICA: We’re gonna get you to engage with the piece of art. Assume the position. We’re gonna hold it for just a second. Friends take photos of friends. We want you to take a selfie with something. We want you to throw something up on Instagram. We want you to you know tweet about something.

HANNAH YI: But the main attraction is the stories they tell behind the art and how they tell it.

JESSYE HERRELL: We’re gonna bring it to you on a level that you’re really comfortable with. It’s very colloquial. We’re not trying to talk, like spew big words that you don’t know or that we feel fancy because we do know.

ETHAN ANGELICA: And we’ll break it down for you like really sassy.

JESSYE HERRELL: Real easy, yeah.

ETHAN ANGELICA: Yeah, really sassy.

ETHAN ANGELICA: I’d like to introduce you to the one and only Caravaggio, my number one drinking buddy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you had to decide where the light is coming from in this painting, where is the light coming from?

See how there’s the V between their shoulders? It looks like there’s some orange thing sort of spurting up there. There’s a fireplace back there. So part of where the light is coming from, is that the fireplace is bouncing off the dude’s chest and shining onto their faces.

And what he’s doing is reflecting light and putting shiny s— into the corners just to sort of keep it real. He was also known for theatrical lighting so if you’re like a filmmaker or something he was sort of like the inspiration for that.

NICK GRAY: Taking them to a piece like this amazing sculpture of Diana that’s in the courtyard of the American wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and how do we compare her to maybe Kim Kardashian.

And how do we talk about other objects in the museum and put them in a light that people can understand and can laugh about? It’s creating these points of accessibility that only get people to be excited and sorta energized.

HANNAH YI: And what do you say to critics who might say, “You know, that’s a little disrespectful to art to kind of link it to pop culture like Kim Kardashian? That it’s sort of irreverent.”

NICK GRAY: I wanna be really careful because a lot of people talk about, “Is what we’re doing just dumbing down the museum experience?” And I don’t see it like that. I see that we’re gonna get people excited to come back to the museum.

HANNAH YI: So why aren’t museums like the ones in New York City embracing sort of your way of giving tours?

NICK GRAY: I’d say the average museum tour is first run by a volunteer who works and gives their time freely at the museum. And I bless these people and I thank them so much for what they do.

However, I don’t think that those are the best people to put in front of a disengaged audience. The tours that my company in contrast are led by these tour guides who develop a route that is purely based on things that they love. It’s a route that is based on amazing pieces that have crazy stories.

HANNAH YI: Do you feel like that’s a good strategy or is that a good way to cultivate an interest in art in your opinion?

SANDRA JACKSON-DUMONT: Absolutely. I think there’s no silver bullet. Now, I can tell you that those little salacious details would not be known without the knowledge of the curators and the people that did all the deep down research. So therein lies the reality that there is a certain level of codependence there.

HANNAH YI: Then perhaps everyone’s working towards the same goal: making sure that young people don’t forget that museums are worth visiting.