On a recent Monday afternoon, Sarah Dunnavant, a 27-year-old actress and guide with the tour company Museum Hack, gathered her group of eight at the entrance of the Art Institute of Chicago, promising to reveal the “salacious, sexy and scary” parts of the museum in an animated two-hour “un-highlights” trip through the museum.
She led the way to American folk art whirligigs, a fake Caravaggio and the arsenic-laced green paint favored by Vincent van Gogh. She passed out candy to keep spirits from flagging, discussed Beyonce’s references in video and photography to the Yoruba goddess Osun in the African gallery, and photographed the group posing as the characters in Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” in front of the pointillist masterpiece.
“If you were expecting to stroke your chin and consider the brush strokes of the great masters,” she said, stroking her chin, and breaking out into laughter, “this is not that tour.”
This tour, like a spate of others that are newly redefining museum-going, aims to reinvigorate a tourism staple: the must-see museum. Museum Hack’s approach is to use humor, pop cultural references and games to make the trip more fun and less dutiful.
“We’re obsessed with attracting a whole new audience,” said Nick Gray, who founded Museum Hack in 2013.
“Museums aren’t competing with other museums,” he added. “They’re competing with Netflix, Facebook and iPhones.”
It’s not that museums haven’t been innovative on their own in efforts to engage in the age of distraction. The Neon Museum in Las Vegas, devoted to castoff signage from around the Las Vegas Strip, recently introduced Brilliant, a sound and light show that animates the nonfunctioning signs. The Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio, conducts flashlight tours of its galleries periodically throughout the year. In St. Petersburg, Fla., the Dali Museum offers a virtual reality tour of Salvador Dalí’s 1935 painting “Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus” that puts viewers in the Surrealist landscape, including atop its human-shaped towers.
Others offer tours that filter their collections through special lenses. In Sarasota, Fla., the Ringling Museum of Art recently introduced tours led by a drag queen. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg offers the Mikinak-Keya Spirit Tour, featuring indigenous guides that use drumming, singing and ceremony to introduce the seven sacred teachings of First Nations peoples.
But third-party tour companies, especially those working in fine art museums, bring more external filters, from the comedic to the academic. Their tours range from special themes, like feminism or gay culture, to museum highlights designed for time-pressed or attention-deficit travelers.
“You take a tour like ours to break down what might otherwise be a million-piece collection like at the Louvre or the Met,” said Stephen Oddo, a co-founder of Take Walks, a walking tour company that operates in New York and San Francisco as well as eight European cities, including London and Rome. “You could go with a guidebook or an article, but that’s very passive. With historic places, it’s always better to get context and richness delivered in person by someone who specializes in it.”
Mr. Oddo and his co-founder, Jason Spiehler, met while working in Rome, where Mr. Spiehler was a guiding tours at the Vatican. Together they founded Walks in Italy in 2010; in other countries the company now goes by Take Walks. The company offers tours like the Louvre in Paris at closing time, when traffic around the “Mona Lisa” dies down, and a full-day trip to three sites by the architect Antoni Gaudí, two of them museums, in Barcelona.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a shift from larger-group, checklist-style, in-a-bus itineraries to smaller tours with guides that have a specific knowledge on a subject and can speak to that nuance,” Mr. Oddo said of the Take Walks tours, which are designed for 12 to 15 people. (Most museum itineraries run two to four hours and range $42 to $107; register at takewalks.com.)
For those seeking a more intimate excursion with an expert, Context Travel recruits archaeologists, art historians and professors to lead its tours, limited to six guests. In 2017, the private equity firm Active Partners invested over $5 million in the company, founded in 2003 by Lani Bevacqua and Paul Bennett, with the goal of expanding the company’s reach. It now operates in nearly 50 cities.
The company’s tours are not exclusively museum-based, but where they are, “themes range from connoisseurship, the currency of art, art theft (alleged or not), and generally the ostentatiously wealthy and conspicuous consumption,” wrote Nick Stropko, a marketing associate at Context, in an email.
In London, the British Museum tour explores the ethics surrounding the Elgin marbles sculptures, originally taken from Greece, which has requested their return. In Madrid, the Spanish Civil War tour visits historic sites related to the war, then goes to the Reina Sofía Museum to explore artists’ reactions to it, including Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” Context tours cost between $60 and $130 a person on contexttravel.com.
Covering more salacious ground, Shady Ladies Tours, which originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2016, focuses on the courtesans, mistresses and beauties commonly depicted in art ($59 at shadyladiestours.com). The company has since expanded to cover “nasty women,” or women of power from ancient Egypt to American suffragists, and fashion and beauty across cultures, including scarification and nose rings, at the Met and other museums in Boston and Philadelphia ($28 to $54).
“It’s a less leaden way of looking at art,” said Andrew Lear, the founder of Shady Ladies, an art historian and classicist who has taught at New York University. He also runs the gay travel company runs Oscar Wilde Tours.
“We are taught to look at art in an almost disorienting and intimidating way, that art is about distinct styles and theoretical concerns,” he added. “I don’t think that’s a great place to start. People like to know context, and, of course, this is a fun side of context.”
Museum Hack, in contrast, was founded by Mr. Gray who had no background in art or history, but said he fell in love with the wonders of the Metropolitan Museum, where themed tours now range from the “un-highlights” to an “unofficial and definitely unlicensed boy wizard tour.”
Now in five cities, Museum Hack tends to hire actors, comics and engaging teachers to guide its tours including feminist tours at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. A drag queen guides another itinerary at the Art Institute of Chicago. Most tours cost $49 to $69 a person; participants must sign up in advance at museumhack.com.
“We hire first for storytelling ability and prioritize that above art history knowledge or expertise,” said Mr. Gray, who calls the Met his “third space” and aims to make infrequent museum visitors comfortable in places they might find intimidating.
“We think that audiences have to be entertained before they can be educated,” he added.
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