Take a Museum Hack tour

A fun new way to discover the Art Institute’s treasures

Take a Museum Hack tour
PHOTO BY Karen Witter
Museum Hack tour guide Colin in front of the mid-16th century painting Judith by Jan Sanders van Hemessen, explaining how the biblical heroine saved her people by chopping off the head of the drunken Holofernes.

A trip to the Art Institute of Chicago is a popular excursion while visiting the Windy City. The bridge from Millennium Park beckons you to cross over the street below to an outdoor area on the top floor of the Art Institute with sweeping views of the skyline and Millennium Park. The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the world’s leading art museums. Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Vincent van Gogh’s The Bedroom, Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on the Grande Jatte, and Gustave Caillebotte’s, Paris Street, Rainy Day, are just a few of the iconic paintings that hang on the walls. Many people delight in standing in front of these and other masterpieces that fill the galleries. There’s now another way to experience the Art Institute in a fun, engaging and unique way. Take a Museum Hack tour.

Museum Hack is allowed by, but in no way organized by, the museum. “This is not your grandma’s museum tour,” proclaims Museum Hack. However, “cool grandmas” are welcome. Museum Hack says they sell museum adventures. Their tag line, Museums are F***ing Awesome, provides another clue that this is something different. Museum Hack hires “renegade” tour guides who are passionate about art, antiquities and history, and great at storytelling and working a small crowd. They also offer tours of major museums in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

There are several tour options. The Un-Highlights Tour is described as “made for museum lovers and skeptics alike, showing a side of the museum you’ve never seen before.” It is a high-energy, two-hour small-group tour with a “tasting menu” approach. Other options include the Badass Bitches tour, celebrating women artists, and Drag Tours, led by a drag queen.

Tours are fast-paced, fun, informative and filled with surprises. The cost is $59 and includes the price of admission, so after the tour you are free to explore the museum on your own. My husband, Randy Witter, and I took the Un-Highlights tour. Our group included two young couples from San Francisco, originally from Romania, and three Chinese students from the University of Illinois Chicago. Colin was our guide – a self-described history geek with a background in theater and improv.

After introductions, we were off. We followed Colin to some of his favorite paintings and sculptures, from ancient to contemporary, passing from the original part of the Art Institute through numerous galleries and hallways to the Modern Wing. Interspersed with learning about works of art, we experienced a unique way of getting to know each other, a surprise to fight museum fatigue halfway through and a fun pop quiz delivered on Colin’s iPad, which also served to enhance our learning experiences along the way.

Our first stop was by a 12th/14th-century Japanese wooden sculpture of the Thunderbolt deity Shukongojin, protector of the laws of Buddhism, which Colin described as “one of the original Guardians of the Galaxy.” Next we saw Dutch artist Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s painting of the biblical heroine Judith, painted in 1540, and learned how she managed to chop off the head of general Holofernes and save her city from the Assyrian army. We learned about armor and the detachable “codpiece” – a vital part of the armor but which could not be worn while riding a horse. We zipped through the Impressionist gallery, stopping for a brief history lesson about Claude Monet’s eyesight and the impact that cataracts and subsequent surgery had on his paintings. In the Modern Wing, we learned the story behind Brancusi’s Golden Bird and the question, “Is it art?” For Colin, this stop was special. It was the first time he had had Romanian visitors on one of his tours, and they shared their knowledge of this important work by a Romanian.

Take a Museum Hack tour
When asked to select a favorite sculpture to have your picture taken with, Karen Witter selected the 1894 bronze sculpture, Bacchante with Infant Faun, since as a new grandmother she was attracted to the joyous woman holding a baby.

The tour included participatory experiences. We were asked to take a picture of a head from other artwork that we thought could belong on a headless Roman statue from the first or second century and share our story about why we selected that particular head. It was fascinating to hear the creative stories conveyed by each person in the group. In a sculpture gallery with a collection of beautiful bronze and white marble sculptures, we each selected one that resonated with us and had our picture taken with it, mimicking the pose.

I love to visit museums when traveling, and my husband has visited a lot of museums with me. Although not as avid a museum person as I am, he is interested in history and generally enjoys visiting museums and often lags behind me reading all the labels. I had no idea what he would think about a Museum Hack tour. He came away saying it was the best museum experience he has had. “The organization has a spot-on approach to making museums informative and fun,” he says. Other people on our tour commented that the information sticks with you longer because it is told in an interesting way. Another said there was great energy, and people with energy enhance the experience.

I came away believing museums can learn a lot from Museum Hack. Museums may own the objects, but they don’t own the narrative. It can be just as informative, or even moreso, to hear from outsiders why they connect with a work of art. Storytelling is powerful and memorable. Engaging people in their own experiences is fun and effective. There was no doubt in my mind that the Museum Hack tour guide presented accurate information. Museum Hack believes you have to entertain before you can educate, and is committed to attracting new people to discover that museums are awesome. If you want a fun, new way to visit a world-class museum, take a Museum Hack tour. For information, go to museumhack.com.

To find out more about the origin of Museum Hack and how it became a successful business, listen to founder Nick Gray’s TED Talk on Youtube.

Karen Ackerman Witter is a former associate director of the Illinois State Museum, past president of the Association of Midwest Museums and an avid museum-goer.

About The Author

Karen Ackerman Witter

Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after a 35-year career in state government holding various senior leadership positions. Prior to retiring she was associate director of the Illinois State Museum for 14 years. She is the past president of the Kidzeum Board of Directors and is an active volunteer...

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