“Hack” your way through a unique tour of the de Young Museum


This past Sunday, I embarked on an adventure with a company called Museum Hack. Their Facebook ad promised an unusual, private tour of the de Young.

Museum Hack started in NYC as a private tour company for individuals and corporate groups. Rather than providing a standard “docent” tour of famous museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History, the company promises “a totally unique experience” that offers “the very best and most intriguing that the museum has on display.”

Here in the Bay Area, they offer tours of the de Young Museum and the USS Hornet aircraft carrier in Alameda.

After purchasing our own general admission tickets to the museum, we met our guide, Julian, in the lobby of the de Young. He had a tote bag over his shoulder that read “Museums are f***ing awesome” so we figured he was our man.

Julian is a recent college graduate who studied art history and who also engaged in a lot of improv comedy – both skill sets served him well during our tour. He promised to show us interesting pieces in the museum, give us insightful background into the works, and play some games with us along the way. Games? Gulp.

Nick Cave's "Soundsuit" (2008) which had a very interesting backstory.

Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit” (2008) which had a very interesting backstory.

We started in the MesoAmerica galleries of the museum on the main floor. He showed us a ball game that the MesoAmericans played and we had an interesting discussion about the sport which historians know little about. The ball weighed 9 pounds (which led to some broken bones), required putting it through a hoop without using your hands, and the losers were sometimes ceremoniously executed.

He also showed us some wall murals from the ancient Mesoamerican city Teotihuacan that the de Young was gifted in a donor’s will, but that turned out to be stolen (the museum worked out a deal with Mexico).

From there Julian took us through all of the museum’s permanent galleries and highlighted 2 or 3 pieces in each, replete with interesting stories about the artist of the piece, and some history on the de Young Museum.

The dreaded games were actually interesting and fun. In the African gallery, he asked us to pick out a piece we thought we would be able to make ourselves and pass off as real, but then identify what would give the piece away. It was a fun way to look differently at the art surrounding us.

The most fun game was probably the challenge we received in the Colonial Portraits gallery. Standing amongst formal oil painting portraits, Julian painted a scenario in which we were on his tour on a Friday night when the lights suddenly cut out. When the lights came back on, Julian was dead on the floor, presumably killed by one of the people depicted in the portrait gallery. Based on their portrait, we had to choose who we think killed Julian, and why, and share that with the group.

I chose an elegant woman who was washing a shell under a fountain stream of water, claiming she was rinsing her sharp shell murder weapon, and that she had slain Julian because he never highlighted her portrait on any tours. Silly fun, but a unique way to look around and explore the portraits in the gallery.

Julian led us through all the galleries in the museum, even showing us the nearly invisible tear on one large piece and demonstrating with his own paper how the painting was repaired. There were also a few other surprises during the tour. Julian said he mixes the tours up and tailors them based on the makeup of his group.

We finished the tour in the de Young’s tower, high above western San Francisco where we could see the bay and adjoining neighborhoods. In total, the tour took about 2 hours with a short break to stave off gallery fatigue (“it’s a very real thing!” said Julian).

Overall, we enjoyed the tour very much and I’d recommend it for someone that is looking for a different way to see the museum, and especially for a group looking for fun outing. I also appreciated that the tour focused on the de Young’s permanent collections, as I am usually visiting the museum for special exhibitions so I tend to overlook the upstairs galleries.

Tickets for a Museum Hack tour are $39 each for the “Un-Highlights” tour of the de Young, which includes a 2 hour tour filled with art history, gossip and backstory, group activities, and photo challenges (note: you must buy your own general admission ticket to the museum).

They also offer a de Young VIP tour (2.75 hours) for $69 which includes drinks beforehand in the neighborhood, a custom-designed tour based on you or your group’s interests, and all the bells and whistles of the regular tour.

For more information, visit the Museum Hack website.

Sarah B.


  1. Not my style, but thanks for this thorough review of the concept!

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