Museum Hack Goes Rogue With One-of-a-Kind Art Institute Tours

Heists, Nazi treasure and other secrets of the Chicago museum

By Alex Lauer

Museum Hack Goes Rogue With One-of-a-Kind Art Institute Tours
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04 April 2017

“We describe ourselves as renegade guides,” says Sarah Dunnavant.

We referring to the Chicago branch of Museum Hack, an interactive tour company that’ll show you the Art Institute like you’ve never seen it before.

So what do they know that a 138-year-old institution doesn’t?

“A Museum Hack tour is primarily social, as well as being kind of mind-blowing in a way that you might not expect,” says Dunnavant. “A lot of our tours are called ‘Un-Highlights’ tours because it’s about what the tour guide chooses as their most interesting stories that they could find in the museum.”

Even the art-illiterate will recognize Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte or Hopper’s Nighthawks. But what about the three Cézannes stolen from the museum in one of the biggest art heists in U.S. history? On a two-hour Museum Hack tour, you’ll get the titillating stories behind the paintings no one takes selfies with, as well as the secrets behind the Institute's numerous Picassos. Beyond the general Un-Highlights Tour, they also offer private experiences, from company team-building to marriage proposals.

“But also we’re there to ... allow you to be the self that you are outside the museum, inside the museum,” says Dunnavant. “It’s creating a space where you don’t feel like you have to behave in a certain ‘museum way’ and where you can really enjoy, play games, socialize in a new way.”

One of those games? “Buy, Steal, Burn … based on another famous game that you can probably think of.”

“Reverently-irreverent is the way that we like to describe our relationship with space,” she says. “Maybe a guard will say, ‘You can’t be talking this loud,' or, 'You can’t be laughing,' when it’s like, there’s no rule against this. We can be doing this!”

To give you a taste of this reverent-irreverence, Dunnavant picked three of her favorite works most of us have missed all these years, and gave us the essentials the regular docents might not tell you.

Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair by Paul Cézanne
“My favorite thing about this painting isn't about the painting or the artist at all: this is one of the very few paintings that have ever been stolen from the Art Institute. It was missing for five months, and was at the time the biggest art heist in U.S. history with a $3-4 million value. How in the world did anyone get this thing out of the museum? It's about five square feet, and when I look at it, I think there's no way I could walk out with that thing unnoticed.”

Statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos
“I tend to think of Greek and Roman statues of naked women as a dime a dozen. Not this one. This is a Roman copy of the very first life-size statue of a naked woman ever made. Its impact was kind of like Kim Kardashian breaking the internet. People were totally scandalized at first, but then it became the most popular tourist attraction in Greece, and was copied and replicated for hundreds of years. And its history has plenty more twists and turns.”

Reliquary with Tooth of Saint John the Baptist
“I like to call this one ‘the one that got away’ ... from the Nazis. I love it because it, first of all, has a medieval tooth inside (what?!), but more importantly, has a dramatic centuries-old history involving ancient royal families, Nazi art sales and contemporary lawsuits. Definitely a hidden gem, and you would never know its mind-blowing history just walking by it.”

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