Mia Transforms into a Giant Puzzle Room

Unlock hidden messages and find secret doors strewn throughout the Minneapolis Institute of Art in a new project slated for fall

Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art

On the third floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Art hangs a Surrealist painting by René Magritte. Called “The Promenades of Euclid,” it depicts an apartment window, in front of which stands a small, painted landscape that blends, uncannily, into the view outside. In his time, Magritte—better known for his painting of a man whose face is obscured by a floating green apple—was fascinated by puzzles and illusions. Today, so are Colin McFadden and Samantha Porter, faculty at a University of Minnesota lab devoted to bridging the gap between technology and the liberal arts. With a new mobile app, they plan to turn Mia into a sprawling series of puzzles, “The Promenades of Euclid” included. They’re calling the project “Riddle Mia This,” expected to debut early fall.

To visualize the project, imagine holding your smartphone up to “The Promenades of Euclid” and using your finger to peek behind the painting-within-a-painting. (Does the landscape in fact replicate the view outside the window? Or does it cover some hidden message?) McFadden, a technology architect, considered Magritte’s work while he and digital-preservation specialist Porter surveyed the museum recently, looking for art they could incorporate into a think-on-your-feet quest akin to a puzzle room. After winning Mia’s third annual 3M Arts and Tech Award this month, along with $50,000 to launch the project, they’re still in the planning stages.

Puzzle rooms have recently boomed across the Twin Cities, enough to have inspired McFadden to bring the idea to Porter after he heard about the award. If you’re unfamiliar, puzzle rooms generally go like this: You and some friends pay to get locked inside a space and must either escape or solve some urgent mystery using clues. Similarly, “Riddle Mia This” will task visitors with a fictional investigation they must piece together from hints encoded within various pieces of the museum’s collection. This could involve unscrambling symbols, opening locked doors, and using X-ray vision or a black light to uncover secret passwords—everything doable with the free app.

COURTESY OF the Minneapolis Institute of Art

A Variation on the Museum Visit

With the 3-year-old Art and Tech Award, Mia participates in a nationwide push toward more tech-integrated museum experiences. “We want [Mia’s collection] to be open to creative, smart people to experiment with,” says Mia chief engagement officer Kristin Prestegaard, “to broaden the appeal of what our collection has.”

But art and technology make for a tricky combination. “Museum visitors are really open to digital engagement as long as it’s not taking away from their art experience,” Prestegaard qualifies, citing a recent CultureTrack report. Even something as simple as a too-big screen can distract from art rather than add value to it, she says. When it comes to engaging an audience, it’s hard enough to generate interest in works that sit behind glass—let alone works that appear onscreen.

“There’s been research showing that if people can interact with objects, in any sort of way other than it sitting in a case, their empathy gets sprung and comes to the forefront,” says Porter.

That’s part of why Mia chose “Riddle Mia This”: Visitors will virtually interact with physically present pieces, and those interactions will count toward a game that rewards participants for learning about art. “Hopefully, via this experience, we can encourage people to read didactic statements they might not have otherwise read, or visit pieces of art they might not have otherwise visited,” Porter says.

More than a Scavenger Hunt

The goal of “Riddle Mia This,” though, is not to send visitors sprinting through a checklist. “We don’t want this to be a word-finding quiz on didactic statements,” Porter says.

The game will not simply ask participants to seek out paintings by name. Instead, McFadden explains, “we would ask them to look for a painting that is about this, asking them to go through multiple steps of translation.”

Glitch, a Minneapolis nonprofit that promotes up-and-coming game designers, will collaborate with McFadden and Porter to build an immersive experience—evocative of puzzle rooms but tapping into Mia’s unique setting.

“If I can make a throwback to the movie The Goonies,” McFadden says, to describe site specificity, “where the characters had to stand in a certain place and hold up a doubloon, and line it up with the rocks, we’re looking at a puzzle where we get people to move to a certain place in the museum, and then look in a certain direction to understand a certain clue.”

They’re aiming for the same young-adult level of difficulty that puzzle rooms have become known for, guided by a narrative, with little to no prior knowledge of art history necessary. Museum staff, too, might get involved. Players would approach them like detectives.

In a sense, the puzzle-filled meta-reality of the app will serve as a museum guide, but education comes second in Porter and McFadden’s planning. Their goal is something as fun as a regular puzzle room—only, instead of $30-$40 per person, it’s free. Part of the idea is “to engage the community that’s cut off from puzzle rooms because of cost,” McFadden adds.

Another big difference: Once it’s over, you’ll be that much more cultured.