“Going to a museum without a goal or a mission, you end up feeling like you have to look at everything, and then you glaze over, and you stop retaining anything,” says Colin McFadden, describing an all-too-familiar experience.
A new app, free for download, offers a fun solution to this museum fatigue.
Called Riddle Mia This, it turns both floors of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) into a sprawling puzzle room, where the riddles take the form of various works of art. McFadden developed the app with Samantha Porter, both technologists at the University of Minnesota, to up visitor engagement with Mia’s collection using technology. They also worked with Glitch, a Minneapolis nonprofit for emerging game designers. The result is a plot-driven, puzzle-solving quest that covers eclectic art history—from Ancient China to modernism. (Read about the app’s beginnings here.)
“We’re not going to show you every piece in the museum,” McFadden says. “We’re going to show you a handful of pieces, but you’re going to really look at those things.”
Your mission: A pulpy, Bond-esque thriller centered on a mastermind’s conspiracy against modern technology. Noir-inflected communications relay each step in your journey via texts to your phone. They provide visual hints and word puzzles, directing you to inspect and interact with your surroundings. I did it, and, honestly, a museum visit has never gone by so fast. It’s a fun, even addictive way to experience Mia, alone or with friends.
And their mission? In Porter’s words: “How do you get people engaged? And how do you get people, at the same time, to maybe learn something?”
Six things to know before playing Riddle Mia This:
1. You won’t want to stop, and there’s no time limit, so set aside a couple hours.
Riddle Mia This slows you down and adds weight and intention to your museum experience. So, it’s not surprising that Porter and McFadden discovered, in trial runs, that people would stray from the course to learn about nearby pieces they had never actually noticed before. There’s no time limit, so you’re able to do this. (Also, it wouldn’t be great to send people sprinting through the halls.)
Moreover, it’s more immersive if you take your time. Everything really does come alive when it’s setting a scene. And you’ll want to take a moment, with each clue, to read between the lines of the backstory.
2. It’s not a scavenger hunt.
Each task demands a different problem-solving strategy, and all of them involve looking around intently—not, in other words, unthinkingly. There’s no sense of “getting on to the next one,” either.
3. There is a hint system if you get stuck.
The difficulty level is about on par with your average escape room: challenging enough for adults but not cruel or intimidating. Still, if you hit a snag, as I did from time to time, there’s a progressive system of hints—and, if those don’t help, you can ask the app for the answer.
Courtesy of Mia
4. You can do it as a group, with two people, by yourself—whatever.
I did it by myself, and it was an engrossing activity, like reading a book for escape. I imagine doing it as a group would feel either playfully competitive (trying to solve each riddle first) or collaborative (reading each clue aloud, brainstorming, and then setting out with a common goal). Either way will get you talking about Mia’s assets in ways you haven’t before.
5. Take your eyes off the labels.
My instinct is always the same at museums: I gravitate to the placards on the wall, read them, then spend probably less time looking at the actual art. This game showed me how ridiculous that is. I started playing, immediately cozied up to the didactic statements, and got stuck. Yes, reading the history behind each piece often helps—and deepens the experience, IMO—but you’ve also got to examine the actual works of art. Obviously. At least now I know I’ve been doing museums wrong. Mindfully running my eyes over a painting or a statue, in pursuit of a goal, is surprisingly pleasurable.
6. When you receive your next clue, stand in place, look up, and really take in your surroundings.
The typical museum experience, as McFadden said, is often a wandering one. So, after solving a riddle, I occasionally found myself drifting nowhere in particular, out of habit—only to be jolted back into the moment by the next clue.
Stand in place, read the navigational hints, then look up and figure out where the game wants you to go. Progressing along the route is often a near-cinematic experience, with certain works of art jumping out at you by the simple magic of their placement.