Ethan Angelica wants to make you feel at home in a museum. It helps if you act like you aren’t in a museum.

Ethan Angelica of Museum Hack
Ethan Angelica of Museum Hack

Angelica is a tour guide and Head of VIP Partnerships with Museum Hack, the group that creates experiential, “entertainment-first” tours of museums focused more on the hidden backstories of art pieces rather than explaining the difference between Manet and Monet. They’ve even led a Pokemon GO-inspired tour.

A graduate of New York University with a BFA in drama and Middle Eastern studies, Angelica talked with Museum Revolution about how his tours co-exist with current museum programming, how technology and phones – think selfies – influence their work and how to get someone to let their guard down enough to absorb what a museum has to offer. (This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)

Museum Revolution: How do you describe what Museum Hack does?
Ethan Angelica: I often say that we offer renegade museum tours at the greatest museums on Earth for people who think they don’t like museums. And then we work directly with museums to help them re-imagine the adult museum experience. That’s the cut-and-dried version. We’re trying to hack content, experience and space.

How do we flip the idea of the museum experience from what is expected to something completely unexpected? People have the opportunity to not only feel like they’re getting dirty backstory, feel like the experience of being in the museum is different, but walk out with a sense of ownership over the physical space.

MR: Initially there was a very guerilla approach. Now there’s more of a partner role with museums. How does what you do co-exist with the more traditional museum tour?
EA: We’re not trying to be all things to all people. We’ve chosen to take a slightly different approach and we’re going after a group of people who are not necessarily going to be attracted to that experience.

When people buy a ticket to a tour, for example, at The Met, this is not a group of people we are pulling off the street. These are people who are attracted to come to the museum through our marketing. At least 50% of those people tell us that they, or people in their party, have not been to the museum prior. That’s a great benefit to the museums where we operate in the third-party capacity. Also, for places like The Met where it’s donation-based, the Met charges us a fairly hefty fee per person that comes in. When a person comes in on their own, they might receive [as little as] a dollar in donations. So they see a nice financial benefit from us being there.

MR: Do you see this as something museums could build in-house?
EA: We teach this. We go around to museums and try to get them to be more passionate storytellers. The benefit that we have is that we are just a third-party outside group. We are not the museum. We are not the institutional voice. That said, I do see a lot of museums doing a lot of interesting, innovative things around adult engagement that are breaking the mold of what that expected experience is. And I think that that’s important.

MR: Your tours combine a lot of fun and parties that people don’t normally expect. When you’re talking to museums about what you do is there ever concern about the mission of the museum being lost?
EA: By offering what we would consider an entertainment-first focus, you’ve now attracted people to having this relaxed, social experience with you. Once they’re relaxed, once you’ve got their guard down, now’s a great opportunity to push that mission in. If you go into it saying “We’re going to teach you now” that’s going to turn off a whole segment of people who are not there to be “taught”; they’re there to have an experience in the space.

MR: What was the Pokemon GO tour like?
EA: We gave them the chance to play Pokemon GO in the museum, to catch things, to take photos of Pokemons in crazy places in the museum. But instead of doing that mindlessly [we] get them to stops that would give them a direct connection to the museum. We tell them the actual stories behind the Pokestops and found things that would be specifically related to this group’s set of interests.

It was fascinating to me to be giving a tour to a bunch of people with their phones out, sort of staring at the phone, catching Pokemon the whole time, and have them, in some cases, be even more engaged with what I was saying than sometimes my normal tours. It was a fun, big surprise to me.

MR: How often do you use phones or other digital tools on the Museum Hack tours?
EA: Phones are an integral part of the experience. Within the first couple minutes of any tour, people have their phones out. If permitted by the museum, we have them taking photos. It’s encouraged. Again, it feels a little subversive. [At] a lot of museums, we’ve been trained to put our phones away. We have photo challenges; we have games that use our phones. What we like about it is it’s a lightweight use of technology that mirrors precisely the experience that we use outside of the museum.

Suddenly, that person who I am outside of the museum gets to be the same person that I am inside of the museum.

MR: Is there a place for museum-specific apps or do they run into the difficulty of getting people to adopt a different kind of user or attendee behavior?
EA: Our commitment is always to the live experience. We believe that people are so digitally saturated in their lives that we want to re-create what’s so wonderful about that person-to-person live experience. As a group, we have actively eschewed the idea. People have asked us “Can you make an app?” And we said no. But I would be a little bit loathe to make a pronouncement on museum apps because it’s really an area that we’ve said “We want to know what this live experience looks like and we want to see how many ways we can play with that.”

MR: So you haven’t seen any kind of learning gap from using technology while on a tour?
EA: In our style? No. When people are connected to technology in the galleries – because it’s just how we exist in our lives – that they become more of themselves. Because that is just a natural extension of who they are.

I’ve also never seen anyone walk into a picture because they have their camera phone out, which I think a lot of people are afraid of.

MR: What can be the role of the selfie in museum appreciation?
EA: I love a good selfie.

My buddy Dustin [Growick] at the American Museum of Natural History created what he called the #dinoselfie and had people go on dinosaur hunts in the museum to take dino selfies.

And let me tell you, when I did it with him the first time I was like “This is patently ridiculous.” He hands me a little plastic mold of a dinosaur toy, had me go find what I think it is – and it’s sort of a cheap dino so it doesn’t look anatomically correct – go take a selfie with it, learn a fact about it and come back and share it to everyone.

I got a stegosaurus and I now know way more about the stegosaurus than I ever expected to. And I still have my little dino selfie on my desk. In this weird way, it gave me a tangible connection to this collection that I wouldn’t have a relationship to otherwise.

MR: What museums are you looking at for innovative ideas?
EA: Nina Simon is a very dear friend over at the Museum of Art History in Santa Cruz. A lot of the participatory elements of the museum that she brings in are things that very much resonate with the work we’re doing.

I’m really inspired by the work of Scott Stulen who used to be over at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and just moved over to Philbrook [Museum of Art] as the director. So I’m excited to see what happens over there. And Adam Rozan has been a dear friend to us and he’s been doing a lot of good work at Worcester [Art Museum].

There’s a lot of people putting out great experiences. My question now is how do we sustain the momentum we create? How do we keep [visitors] coming back? How do you market to them – which I know can be a dirty word in this field – but in a way that is organic, comfortable, exciting and relevant and makes them feel like this is home? And then how do you perpetuate that interest so that suddenly they are the donors of tomorrow?

In all honesty, I love the engagement work that we do and I love doing workshops, but the thing that gets me out of bed right now is figuring out we can take the model that we are proving and bring it into museums in a way that helps them be sustainable.

Ethan spoke at Communicating the Museum 2016 Quebéc on how to attract and keep millennial audiences. You can learn more about the conference here.