“Museum Hack leads renegade tours of the world’s best museums…with guides that are smart, sassy and sarcastic”— Museum Hack’s website and YouTube video.
I signed up for Museum Hack's ‘Un-highlights Tour’—I wanted to shake things up with The Getty. Though my favorite museum where I’ve done numerous docent-led tours, I felt ready for something ‘sassy’. For the most part Getty tours are great: interesting, sometimes dry, definitely predictable. The Hack’s tours sounded anything but. According to their website the Getty tour is for, “for those who seek secretive, salacious, scandalous stories” (bring it on!), “speed walkers” (wouldn’t want it any other way), “people who don’t like museums” (okay, I can pretend)—and “it’s not your grandma’s museum tour”. So radical! I signed on and paid my $49; never mind that I happen to be a grandmother.
Saturday came. I got an email that morning reminding me of the 2:30 pm tour—where to meet, to leave time for parking, etc. and with a downloadable e-ticket. I left early to make sure I got a parking spot (I know…so non-millennial). Then got a text from ‘Vic’ our tour guide with last minute instructions and a contact number. Brilliant!
The tour did not disappoint. Vic, vivacious and edgy, enthusiastically greeted the four us. Our group likely skewed older than most. One couple was Vic’s grandpa, Ron, a seventy-five year old man with his partner, me (fifty-plus), and one other woman in her forties. Poor Vic. Yet she energetically led us on a whirlwind tour visiting a selection of her favorite works telling stories of each piece that incorporated unique and (sometimes) shocking facts. She was engaging, involving us with questions and inviting comments. No boring art history with dates, names of dead people or terms like Baroque sensibility, fluent brushwork or atmospheric landscapes. No sirree—we discussed partying, the love of wine, penises (more on that later), and heard gossipy stories of several works you wouldn’t hear from a Getty docent.
We played games too. Yes games! One was making up a who-dunnit story using paintings. Standing in front of the ‘Countess of Chesterfield’ portrait by Gainsborough, we had to create a story of who killed the Countess, how and where using the artworks in the nearby galleries. Working in teams of two, we were to take pictures of three artworks with our phones that told the story. Fun! My team determined that a jealous lover, poisoned tea biscuits and worked with the housemaid to serve them to the Countess in her salon. Dead! Another was to find a piece of artwork during the tour that represented who we were in a previous life, then take a picture and share it at the end of the tour. There would be a prize. There wasn’t much of a contest, as Ron and his partner didn’t take a picture but described vaguely who they might have been, the other woman said she would have been King Louis XIV red shoes he wore in his portrait (?!?). I chose a woman who was leading two horses in a field; I likely owned and ran a farm in my past life (boring, but the bar was low). I won a cool magnet of Van Gogh’s Iris’ painting.
The games were fun; they prompted thought and engagement. Vic did a great job introducing them; it didn’t feel awkward or weird.
As promised there were back stories about various artworks. Some salacious in nature. One was the story behind the sculpture ‘Angel of the Citadel’ which features a man sitting on a horse with an erect penis. Apparently the penis-sculpture piece disappeared one day a couple of years ago, (some Getty visitor likely has this prize mounted proudly somewhere in his or her home), and The Getty had to contact the company that had made the mold of the statue (cast in 1950) to see if they could make another phallic cast. Apparently they did, and now it is attached, and virtually impossible to remove according to Vic. My guess is it’s a popular selfie spot on most of the Hack’s tours.
Another, not so salacious but juicy nonetheless, was the kidnapping story of John P. Getty’s grandson in 1973. Vic shared, in the John P Getty exhibit space which tells (parts of) Getty’s life story, how Getty refused to pay the $17 million ransom for his grandson saying it would set a precedent for his other grandchildren. After receiving a piece of his grandson’s ear in the mail, he finally agreed to a negotiated amount of $3 million, which was the maximum amount you could claim on your income tax. Cheap!
Finally, the most shocking story of what Vic shared, is the fact that of all the artworks in The Getty’s permanent collection, only two are by female artists! Vic was more outraged than any of us. I’m so jaded.
I Want More!
The tour was stellar; it lived up to its promise as a renegade tour that’s not your traditional (grandma’s) museum tour. Museum Hack operates in five cities, New York, LA, Chicago, D.C. and San Francisco. They also offer another tour, ‘Badass Bitches’ at The Getty which I’m going to try next if I can convince some girlfriends to join me. It looks just as renegade, if not more so than the un-highlights tour given it promises to “kick some ass”. I’m in.
Museums for Real is a blog with ideas and thoughts on how to make museums relevant, approachable and fun for everyone,