Every museum tour should start with a huddle break. That's what Mark Rosen, one of the guides behind the upstart group Museum Hack, believes. On a recent Sunday, he began a tour in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Great Hall by urging his nine guests to form a tight circle, hands in the center, and on the count of three, shout: "MUUUUSEUM!"
"There is a thing called 'museum fatigue.' That's a real problem," he said, before zipping off toward the European Arts wing. "We want you to be engaged in the way you typically aren't, physically, in a museum."
The huddle break is what Mr. Rosen refers to as a "fatigue fighter," just one of several components to a Museum Hack tour.
The four-month-old startup, which is not affiliated with the Met, leads its guests through two-hour, $39 tours of the museum, usually on Fridays and weekends,and instead of focusing on specific areas or crash-course overviews, it gravitates to overlooked pieces in the collection or intriguing facts about the more celebrated ones. To say it is an unconventional museum-going experience would be like calling the Met a good place to see old paintings.
"You typically don't go to a fancy restaurant, study the menu for three seconds, order everything, gorge yourself and roll out the door," Mr. Rosen said to his Sunday-morning charges. "Yet almost everybody comes here, tries to see everything in four hours or less, Instagrams the hell out of the place and leaves, remembering nothing." Drawing a line between art appreciation and modern-day foodie culture, he likened Museum Hack to his version of a tasting menu.
And like any talented chef who wants to impress his diners with an experience they'll remember long after the check is paid, Mr. Rosen and Museum Hack's founder, Nick Gray, currently the only guides, customize their tours according to their guests' museum diets: who's been to the Met before, who's a first-timer, and their likes and dislikes.
The museum knows about and doesn't object to Museum Hack, though Harold Holzer, the Met's senior vice president of public affairs, noted that it offers some 140 official tours a week, "and they're free with admission," he said.
Ultimately, Mr. Holzer said, he and Mr. Gray share the same philosophy. "The main message is the Met is open to everyone."
Mr. Rosen, 24 years old, holds a master's degree in museology and has worked at a spate of arts organizations from Dia: Beacon to the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice, Italy. "This is the most fun I've ever had, though," he said. "I can actually talk to people normally."
Over a stretch of 1.25 miles, he led his group through troves of arms and armor and modern art, with stops for group photos along the way—more fatigue fighters—and a final interactive exercise that involved pairing up to discuss individual art works.
That day's attendees, a nearly-equal split of men and women ranging in age from 22 to 57, learned that the tiny, ornate dog bed in a rococo-decorated room belonged to Marie-Antoinette's Thisbe, a papillon she carried with her to the guillotine. The dog escaped the same fate and was kept at a home outside Paris, which still bears the name "House of Papillons" in its honor ("Ultimate dog owner's aspiration," enthused Mr. Rosen).
A walk through the museum's visible storage galleries revealed history's first easy chair, a popular 18th-century design that came with a built-in chamber pot. Then there were the better-known museum fixtures, like the Temple of Dendur. Mr. Rosen recounted how the massive structure, a gift from Egypt to the U.S., came to reside at the Met, thanks to Jacqueline Kennedy.
"The whole experience is a really unique setup, like the team-building aspect and getting people to feel comfortable with each other so you can interact," said Evan Neubauer. The 24-year-old Bushwick resident had come with his friend, Joelle Gamble, who, despite having a Met membership voiced her disdain for the bourgeois sensibility she felt it exuded.
"Coming in and finding out about things that were less pretentious and made artists seem more human was really important. I feel like I can engage with the material a little more now," Ms. Gamble, 22, said.
Museum Hack was born from Mr. Gray's desire to share his love of the Met with friends and peers. "It's one of the least appreciated museums among the 21 to 39 demographic," he said. "So many of my friends just don't have a relationship with the museum. You ask them, where do you go to get inspired or to have a break, and nobody says museums."
In December 2011, he led friends on a four-night stretch of Met tours to celebrate his 30th birthday, which spawned the idea to continue giving them on a weekly basis. Mr. Gray set up a website for friends and their friends to sign up. It went viral in a matter of days, with registrations exceeding 1,000, he said. "It became clear this was more than just something fun that I could do on the weekends."
Last April, he resigned from his family business, which develops in-flight-entertainment equipment, to launch Museum Hack as a business, making Mr. Rosen his first hire. It remains a mostly word-of-mouth operation. "When my California friends ask for help planning their trips to New York, I always suggest Nick's tour. Before, a museum wouldn't have been in my top 10 recommendations," offered Zach Klein, who co-founded Vimeo and helped develop the website CollegeHumor.com (he and Mr. Gray also attended college together).
Mr. Gray's knowledge of the museum and its collections is, for the most part, self-taught. Hosting comes naturally to him: In 2009, New York magazine described him as "a sort of Lois Weisberg for the Tumblr age," a nod to the connector described in Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point," in an article entitled "Meet Nick Gray, Thrower of 'Culturally Significant' Williamsburg Parties."