On this episode, we talk about how museums tell stories. We’ll learn how museums are starting to talk less like institutions and more like humans. We’ll talk to Erich Brubaker about how Museum Hack is revamping museum tours to create some space for fun and whimsy. And we’ll hear from Theresa Bembnister from the Akron Art Museum about their work to treat the gallery as a giant conversation starter. And finally, we’ll chat with Kimberly Drew, curator and former social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
On View is a production of the Knight Foundation, hosted by Chris Barr and produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. This episode has been mixed and edited by Wilson Sayre.
Chris Barr: This past summer, our producer Katie went on a tour of the Met. And it wasn’t the stuffy art history primer that you may be thinking of, instead, it was a new kind of “renegade museum tour.”
Chris Barr: The tour was one led by a group called Museum Hack. Their tours involve posing like statues for the camera, playing little games, and sharing surprising backstories about the art you’re seeing.
Erich: So I mean right off the bat for my tour of the National Gallery of Art I talk about the patron saint of the National Gallery, Andrew Mellon, and I let people know that he might have donated the entire gallery just as a giant tax donation.
And that gives you some context, of course he was incredibly generous enough to make sure we have the National Gallery of Art but a docent’s never going to tell you anything about his tax evasion.
Chris Barr: That’s Erich Brubaker. He’s a tour guide for Museum Hack in Washington D.C. The organization was founded six years ago by Nick Gray, a self-proclaimed non-museum person. Nick became interested in museums after a date at the Met. He enjoyed it so much that he decided to lead tours for his friends over the next few weeks. Those tours grew into Museum Hack, a business that now runs over 30 weekly tours in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, LA and DC. And if you ask Erich, their success boils down to one big thing.
Erich: It really comes down to storytelling. So we start with a foundation of passion.
Chris Barr: Usually, people associate museum tours with the kind of dry lectures you might get in a classroom. But groups like Museum Hack are showing just how a museum might experiment with new ways of telling stories inside their own walls.
Erich: So we start with a foundation of entertainment, because museums are educational institutions. But through surveys they've found that people are coming to be entertained and people care more about clean toilets than they do about education, quite frankly. So we start from that point of when you're coming into a museum you want to have fun.
Chris: And sometimes fun means things that were once discouraged in museums: taking selfies, playing games, laughing out loud, and maybe just being a little raunchy.
Erich:We can talk about genitalia. We can talk about you know how this artist was had a very sexy saucy life and that definitely affects how you're looking at it.
Chris Barr: On this episode of On View, we want to talk about how museums tell stories. We’ll learn how museums are starting to talk less like institutions and more like humans. We’ll talk to Erich about how Museum Hack is revamping museum tours to create some space for fun and whimsy. And we’ll hear from Theresa Bembnister from the Akron Art Museum about their work to treat the gallery as a giant conversation starter. And finally, we’ll chat with Kimberly Drew, curator and former social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You might know her from her blog or as “museummammy” on Twitter and Instagram.
At the heart of each of these conversations is an acknowledgement that museums are not just collections of objects. Museums are also effectively media companies charged with creating and telling stories to their audiences.
And there are a lot of opportunities right now for museums to tell stories in new ways. In fact, the demand for storytelling has never been higher. Not only can museums think critically about how they curate and label their exhibits, they also can think about how they structure their tours, invite interaction in galleries, and share on social media.
Erich: A very large majority of the people who come to our tours, at least half, have never been to that space before.
Chris Barr: Tour guide Erich again.
Erich: So we are mostly reaching people who have never been to the National Gallery of Art or the Portrait Gallery or the Met or the Getty or the Arts Institute of Chicago. Never been. And so we are their first introduction into these spaces and we get to kind of introduce them to a new way to be in a museum and to give them tools about how they can come back and enjoy it on their own time.
Chris Barr: So how did Museum Hack get into the business of unofficial tours? Well, by accident of course, and that origin story has turned into, sort of, company mythology. Founder Nick Grey was a museum outsider who took interest in a few objects at the Met and began taking friends into the museum to talk about the peculiar facts he had learned .
Erich: He was like hey guys just come see this really weird thing. It kind of turns into more weird things and more friends and it kind of became the first unofficial unhighlights tour and his passion really is what drove from the beginning.
Chris Barr: A blogger wrote a story and then thousands of people emailed him wanting the tour.
Erich: So he got together other people who were really really excited about museums: scientists and museum educators. And he brought them into the museum he was like OK. Go find weird things that you can be excited about. And then just share your excitement with other people. And then eventually that kind of that core team put together a framework on how to make a successful tour that can be exciting and relevant and new.
Chris Barr: Erich works in DC, so he is experienced in giving tours of the National Gallery of Art. He’s curious about fashion, quilting and history so like other Museum Hack guides, he often brings his own curiosity into the tours.
Erich: So the big draw of the National Gallery of Art is that the National Gallery has the only DaVinci this side of the Atlantic. And millions of people come to see Ginevra DaVinci and we go in there and we talk about her. We don't talk about DaVinci and his brushstrokes. We talk about Ginevra and who she was as a woman. She was a pretty cool lady 14 years old could read and write wrote her own poetry called herself a mountain tiger and had a platonic lover on the side who might have been involved with the painting.
Chris Barr: And beyond the quirky facts, time seems to fly on a Museum Hack tour. The guides keep you active. Rather than a passive stroll through the museum, they work hard to make it a participatory experience.
Erich: We ask them questions we get them to give input. We make it a social experience.
Chris Barr: Museum Hack is just one example of work being done inside the walls of museums by people who aren’t actually part of the institution. It’s a different approach to storytelling and amazingly, folks are willing to pay for it! In addition to the museum ticket price, participants are paying $50 bucks or more for the value add.
But inside the institution, these conversations about how to make museums talk more like humans are happening, as well.
Theresa: So we are a museum that has over fifty five hundred objects in our collection.
Chris Barr: Theresa Bembnister, is one of three curators at the Akron Art Museum in Ohio. She organizes exhibitions for the museum, as well as helping build the collection and working on public programming. The Akron Art Museum, like a lot of regional museums, has a slightly different mission than museums in larger cities.
Theresa: We serve as a smaller smaller city and we focus on a collection that presents the work of artists from our region alongside artists who are nationally and internationally known. So if you come to the Akron Art Museum you may see a painting that's been done by someone who could be standing next to you in line at Target or the grocery store which is definitely not the experience that you'll get at a museum like the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Chris Barr: A few years ago, Theresa and team were part of a program to pilot new technology in museums. The program focused on using human-centered design; that is, how to build solutions in the service of people: understanding their needs and questions, thinking through how to enrich the experience for them.
The Akron team started with the assumption that people have questions about the artwork and that as experts, they could answer them. It was inspired by Brooklyn Ask app. But rather than jump directly to the digital solution, they made a physical prototype of the idea.
Theresa: And what that was, was a little project that we called "The Curator is In". And so the idea was that similar to Lucy's psychiatry booth in the Peanuts we would sit in the gallery or the curator, that would be me, would sit in the gallery and be available to answer any questions that our visitors had.
Theresa:So our hypothesis was that people would would be really excited about this and really take the opportunity to ask these questions, specifically because there was a curator someone with all this expertise there in the gallery. But in real life what we found was that nobody really had questions for us. They're either uninterested and maybe they didn't know what a curator did. Maybe they were too shy. Overall we discovered that our hypothesis that people would want to ask us questions was was incorrect and I will say that is one of the parts of human centered design is discovering exactly how wrong you are.
Chris Barr: The team noticed that people were not really interested in asking a question, face-to-face. But they were interested in talking. Just to each other.
Theresa: Most of the people who came to visit the museum were doing so with friends or family and the artworks themselves were conversation sparkers. And so through the observation we came to the determination that the type of technology we wanted for our galleries would be one that encouraged our visitors to talk to each other.
Chris Barr: So the team went back to the drawing board. They wanted something that could be easily integrated into a museum visit. It would speak directly to the visitors and encourage conversation.
Chris Barr: Theresa and her team knew that they needed something personable and casual, so they designed Dot, a digital tour guide that visitors would connect with over Facebook Messenger. Rather than try to answer questions or give an exhaustive tour, the app guides you to a few pieces of art and prompts you with questions and discussion topics. And because it is happening in a conversational format, the tone and personality of the chatbot was critical.
Theresa: We had lots of conversations coming up with kind of a tone and a personality for Dot, we wanted to create something that would be comfortable for visitors of all ages. But we definitely focused on a kind of tone that would appeal to a digital native visitor so we included a lot of animated GIFs and kind of Internet memes through the conversation with Dot trying to make it fun and conversational, ultimately.
So we did deliver a lot of interesting small nuggets of information about the works of art and throughout the tour but we also kind of included conversational interchanges with Dot herself and then also questions that were designed to encourage the visitors to talk about the artworks that were in front of them.
Chris Barr: What the team at Akron learned was not just how to create a character for their tour guide, but also how to address the issue of institutional tone and make the museum visit more personal.
Chris Barr: Dot added interactivity to the museum experience that didn’t require developing a new app. It was integrated into an app that many smartphone users already have. And by thinking about who Dot was they learned about who Dot was for.
Chris Barr: But conversations with Dot also revealed some unexpected results.
Theresa: We have also discovered that people are when they do type back to Dot they're often asking where the bathrooms are.
Theresa: So maybe we improve our way finding in terms of giving directions to the restrooms.
Chris: That that's that's a constant. I think in every museum. Yes. Where's the bathroom question. Maybe it's the first thing that maybe maybe as people like get their tickets they should just have that question answered immediately. Welcome to the museum. The bathrooms are that way.
Theresa: Yeah exactly.
Chris Barr: The creation of Dot has inspired the museum to consider how they create new offerings for their visitors. They now embrace processes that are informed by museum goals rather than available technology, that make use of visitor data to challenge their own assumptions, and that make the tone of content as important as the information it contains. Each time a museum adds an interactive, an audio tour or a digital product, it creates a similar opportunity to think about the storytelling.
Chris Barr: Stories are opportunities to bring new people into museums. But that requires us to realize that we can’t just tell stories that only make sense to the kind of people who already go to museums. They need to consider how to tell stories to people who don’t already know the entire canon of art history or who don’t find history inherently interesting. At their best, museums have the ability to tell stories that connect people to information. And the best way to make those connections is to tell stories that are interesting, relatable, provocative and, yes, even fun.
Chris Barr: But institutions don’t just tell stories within their walls. They also tell stories as a form of outreach. Kimberly Drew is one of the people who understand this power best.
Kimberly: I'm a writer and independent curator based in New York City. A few months ago, I left a social media manager position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Chris Barr: Kimberly is a bit of a celebrity in the museum world. She started her Black Contemporary Art blog on Tumblr while she was at Smith College. Encountering Basquiat in class for the first time made her realize that there was a whole world of black artists that she wanted to share with others. Soon after, she began using her Instagram and Twitter accounts to also showcase the work of underrepresented artists. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City took notice and hired her as a social media manager.
Chris Barr: Kimberly’s social media ethos is all about making art and institutions accessible to more people. Her work welcomes more people into the fold, especially people who have long felt that museums might not be for them.
Kimberly: People genuinely don't think that they're intelligent enough to go to a museum or they don't know enough artists to go to a museum and that to me is just like it gives me chills to think about it because museums are institutions for learning. That's what we do. That's what we do best. We present information for people you're not supposed to come there totally filled up you know that's not fun you go there to fill your cup.
Chris Barr: Posts from her account and from the Met highlight a myriad of artists, explaining their work and importance in everyday language. And for a lot of people, their first encounter with what’s inside the Met came through seeing these posts on Instagram or Facebook.
Kimberly: I wanted to give people a primary vocabulary around artists so that they when they finally did or they could if they're able to go into a museum space they might see someone they already know, you know like how cool is that that you can go to a museum and visit the artwork of the artist that you're familiar with.
Chris: Kimberly shares information with online audiences in a way that makes people feel comfortable and knowledgeable.
Kimberly: We can't assume that people automatically feel safe. We can't assume that people ought to know because it's a vulnerable space to be in when you you don't feel intelligent enough or well read enough to be in a space and it's our duty to make sure that people have those resources and tools and social media can be such an excellent tool for remedying that that break.
Chris Barr: And she believes in making content that is relatable, even at the most basic level.
Kimberly: You know, for example Happy birthday to this artist posts a lot of people are like that is so dumb. But also everybody knows what a birthday is. You know like even if you don't know Abstract Expressionism like you know what it means for someone to have a birthday and you may like the image that is associated with this tweet and that may drive you to the web site to learn more about that artist.
Chris Barr: And it’s important to realize that Kimberly’s work is not just about flashy Instagram posts. At the Met, she used a full arsenal of digital resources to tell stories and make those stories more accessible.
Kimberly: One of the initiatives that I launch at the Met was putting American Sign Language tours on Facebook Live. And like I knew that if I not only did that but then also showed people that it didn't require a lot of resources to do so, more than permission, people just need instructions.
Chris Barr: This initiative was new and fairly inexpensive; the biggest cost was hiring someone fluent in ASL. And it made the museum a more accessible and welcoming place for those with hearing impairments. All it took was an iPhone and an afternoon of filming. It was archived on their social media and can be used by anyone who needs it in the future.
Chris Barr: And when I asked about the disconnect between the digital and the physical, Kimberly finds that museums are made of something bigger than databases or marble columns:
Kimberly: Museums rather than being built around walls are built around ideas. And I think that that is what is the most valuable thing. I'm a big fan of going to museums, going to galleries. That is a thing that I like to do. I'm also able bodied and relatively privileged to be able to do so and so I think it's important whenever talking about the difference between like brick and mortar and digital. It's important to understand why people may access things the way that they do and in how do we serve the broadest audience possible within those kind of contexts and confines.
Chris Barr: To make the ideas contained in museums more accessible, Kimberly says it is important to take notes from other creative fields where people feel comfortable developing their own taste. Even if they haven’t taken a college class on fashion or film criticism, people still pick out their own style of clothes and binge-watch different TV shows.
Kimberly: Cause that's how so many other creative fields work like you can eat a really delicious meal without knowing the entire story about it it's dope when you do have like a chef introduce a plate but you can still enjoy the food you know and you can still say like, I don't like asparagus, but that doesn't always happen in art spaces you know like people think that they should. They have to like Picasso. Like what. How did that happen? Like how did we get there?
Chris Barr: Kimberly recently left the Met in order to pursue her own projects. But working at the Met has transformed her perspective on why museums can be slower to adopt new ways of working.
Kimberly: I would say the thing that I learned most clearly was, I had always had suspicions that no one took risks in museums. Which is an interesting thing to admit. And I don't mean to discredit people's really really hard work because I know that there's some institutions that I could point to where you see them doing like incredible things [00:20:13][7.5]
Kimberly: But there's many ways in which institutions really need permission sometimes to innovate in certain ways.
Chris: And sometimes there are just practices that museums should avoid.
Kimberly: One of my hugest pet peeves is when people hire interns to do social media.
Kimberly: I think it's such it's so dumb and it really sets everyone up to fail because speaking as a social manager or you know managing these accounts means that you're really being the voice for that institution in the digital sphere. You are outlining a institution's digital social footprint right. And that person should have a level of institutional knowledge to be able to do so.
Chris Barr: And there are also trends in the field that make her optimistic.
Kimberly: I think there's a lot of reparative work that's being done in institutions to revise and retell and inform a more diverse set of narratives and that's super exciting.
Chris Barr: As Kimberly’s work shows, social media can be used not just as an advertising arm for the institution, but as a vehicle for storytelling that builds community. And it’s important that institutions ask themselves what sort of story they want to tell about themselves and their collections.
Chris Barr: Today, every museum is effectively a media outlet. Digital technology has expanded the scope of the museum, creating a need and opportunity for more and better stories to fill an expansive digital space.
Chris Barr: The work of people like Kimberly, Theresa and Erich are efforts to fill the storytelling needs both inside and outside the museum, from the tone and style of a tour, to the use of digital media and marketing. They address different corners of the museum where storytelling could be transformed and reinvigorated. There are other corners too...
Chris Barr: We can look at all the places where museums can and should tell stories. And figure out how best to tell stories using new mediums and what kind of audience they speak to. It’s an incredible opportunity, but one that requires building new skillsets, new workflows and more empathy for the people we serve. Even if a collection is small, the avenues to tell stories are wide. Stories are a basic building blocks of humanity, they help us understand the world and connect to each other. And like a great book, great museum storytelling can activate the imagination of the public.
Thank you for listening to On View, the podcast is a project of the Knight Foundation. You can learn more about our work in the arts and technology at knightfoundation.org
Our podcast is produced by Katie Fernilius.
I’m Chris Barr. Find me on Twitter at heychrisbarr. And thanks for listening.