Girls Gone Ancient with Museum Hack

In the Magazine
A renegade tour company shows bachelorettes that drinking games and sexting are as old as museums Winston Struye

A little after 7 p.m. on a recent Friday, eight young women in cocktail dresses and heels strutted into New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Led by two tour guides, they made their way to the cloistered gallery of Northern European Decorative Arts, and the tapestried walls began to reverberate with giggles and click-clacking dress shoes.

Jessye Herrell, one of the leaders, herded the ladies toward a small, gilt statue of a half-naked woman on a horse. The women formed a semicircle around Herrell and fell silent.

“It’s Diana and the stag,” Herrell said of the statue, which is a little bigger than a drip coffee maker. “In the story, Diana is out bathing in the river, like you do when you’re a goddess. She’s the goddess of the hunt, and this guy, this hunter Actaeon, and his dog are out hunting, and he accidentally wanders over and sees Diana bathing, and she’s like, ’Yo, I’m a goddess, forget about it.’ And she’s so upset that she turns him into a stag.

“Sometimes, the hunter does become the hunted,” she said.

“This isn’t in here just because the story is full of wisdom,” Herrell continued. “It’s in here because this thing is a mother-effing 17th century robotic drinking game.”

“What? No way!” several of the revelers shouted amid oohs and aahs and gasps of laughter.

The horse, Herrell explained, has a hollow body and removable head that doubles as a drinking cup. Imbibers would wind the base, which has hidden wheels, sending the automaton across the bacchanal table. “If you’re the host of this party and it’s kind of lame and you need some social lubricant, you take this thing out and wind it up,” she added. “Rinse and repeat until you’re officially sloshed and your party is hoppin’.”

“How much you think they have to drink?” she then asked the group.

“The whole thing?” one worried-sounding woman said.

“The whole thing,” Herrell confirmed. “A lot of wine.”

“Where’s our drinking game?” one of the women asked.

Thus begins a bachelorette party with Museum Hack, which offers a self-proclaimed “highly interactive, subversive, fun, nontraditional museum tour” that isn’t officially affiliated with the Met or New York City’s Museum of Natural History, where the company also runs tours. Besides advertising museum tours for people who don’t like museums, the 3-year-old company offers special prenuptial programs.

Company founder Nick Gray, who calls himself a museum junkie, got the idea after giving his friends a tour of the Met to celebrate his 30th birthday. Though Gray does not have an art history background—his only formal training was a class in college called Management of Visual Arts—he said he taught himself about the Met’s artworks by visiting the museum more than 100 times.  

Back then, it was a “passion project,” not a business, Gray said, that he did for friends. But word soon spread to their friends that his tour was a bawdy and passionate celebration of the humanities (activities include a “fast-paced scavenger hunt” with a break for wine in the Petrié Court Cafe). After Daily Candy profiled Gray in 2013, more than 1,000 people requested tours via Facebook. Soon he was able to start charging for tours and quit his job at an aviation equipment company.

Last year Gray noticed that most of his tour-goers were women, and after a bachelorette party booked a private tour, he started marketing specifically to this demographic. Per-person prices range from $39 during the day to $79 to $99 for bachelorette parties and $149 for corporate team-building tours. (Depending on the type of tour, part or all of the Met’s $25 voluntary admission fee might be included with the price.)

“It’s a classy way to do a nontraditional bachelorette party,” Gray tells Newsweek. “We also just think that the museum lends itself to sexy, salacious, gossipy stories.”

While bachelor parties date back to 500 B.C.—Spartans would wine and dine grooms-to-be either in celebration or lamentation of their last night of singledom—bachelorette parties as we know them did not emerge until the 1960s. The sexual revolution spurred women to move beyond mere bridal showers to an evening (or weekend) of boozy abandonment, with penis-shaped cakes and flashing, pink “naughty girl” tiaras. Some, however, prefer a more subdued outing.  

“I wanted something different,” said that evening’s bride-to-be, a 27-year-old marketing manager who declined to be named for professional concerns, during the wine break. “This came up, and at first I thought it was a scam because it was too good to be true.”

Thematically speaking, Museum Hack’s Met-based bachelorette parties don’t veer too far from more traditional prenuptial outings: The tour guides tailor the selection of artworks visited, and the accompanying narratives, to focus on love and lust and the challenges of lifelong matrimony.

For example, Lewis Feemster, a recently recruited Museum Hack tour guide who helped lead Herrell’s hens that Friday, discussed a statue of the Egyptian god Bes, emphasizing the deity’s powerful form of couples therapy. “He and his wife, Beset, represented fertility and budding sexuality,” Feemster said as the women shot teasing looks at the blushing bride-to-be. “They actually had incubation chambers, so if you were having a bit of marital difference, you would go spend the night in a Bes chamber, and it would lead to erotic dreams and hopefully you would revive your marriage.”

Feemster said the statue depicts the god as a “dwarfish lion” that gives museum-goers “full frontal,” and added that the deity also had prophylactic properties per ancient Egyptian myth. A tattoo of Bes, he added, “could often be found on the interior thigh of serving girls as a way to promote heightened sexuality and prevent venereal disease.”

That’s the tattoo to get!” one of the girls shouted to the bachelorette.

The tour also touched on early versions of steamy selfies. Sarah Goodridge, a celebrated 19th century American painter of miniatures, wasn’t just being provocative with her most famous work, Beauty Revealed, an 1828 painting of her own bare breasts—she was trying to entice statesman Daniel Webster, her longtime paramour, into marriage, Herrell said.

In other words, Beauty Revealed is “the original sext,” Herrell said. “She only leaves Boston to paint this guy,” she said of Goodridge’s relationship to Webster, who resided in Washington, D.C. “She paints him 12 times. They are obviously not getting together just to do paintings.

“So his wife passes away, and Sarah’s like, 'This is my chance to have this guy make an honest woman out of me,’” Herrell continued. “Also, girl’s like 45 in this painting. She didn’t need a bra. She took good care of herself.”

“Maybe it’s more along the lines of Snapchat,” a bridesmaid pondered.

“Unlike Snapchat, he couldn’t get rid of this,” Herrell countered with a smile. “He took a screen-capture.”

The Met-based bachelorette party even offers a subdued version of the male stripper as well: a peer-judged “best booty” contest at the tour’s conclusion. Participants snap photos of good-looking butts, be they sculpted, painted or attached to a fellow museum-goer.

Two partygoers catch each other looking at Feemster’s backside, and one of them chortled, “I already see some booty.”

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