A month ago, I wrote about the pleasure of secret, exclusive places in cultural venues, and many of you wrote in with stories of your own. Last week in Denmark, I experienced two more delightful hidden treasures, and they led me to this simple question: how much space and money would you devote to providing an exclusive experience within your institution?
Let me explain. I visited two museums in which resources were devoted to experiences that only a tiny fraction of the visiting public would consume. In both cases, these exclusive experiences were wonderful surprises. Were these underutilized wastes of space or special places for the special visitors?
My first experience was at the Experimentarium, a science center just north of Copenhagen. The Experimentarium offers an impressive mobile phone-based activity called Ego Trap which transforms a two-hour visit into a narrative, social game. Ego Trap uses voice and text messages to immerse visitors in a research study carried out by mysterious hosts, who entreat them to use certain exhibits, answer questions, and perform multi-person challenges as part of the elusive study. Eventually (spoiler!), players realize that a hacker has gotten into the system, and they must choose whether to side with the scientists behind the study or the hacker. Visitors who choose the hacker approach a secret door, marked STAFF ONLY. They input a code into their phones and the door unlocks to reveal the headquarters of the science research study: a dark lair filled with electronic equipment and... rats' nests. The scientists running the study were in fact rats out to enslave humans and turn them into lab animals! The rats' HQ challenges visitors to tackle a final game to escape successfully from the rats' lair.
This game, and the secret room that hosts it, is only available to the tiny fraction of people who play Ego Trap and make it all the way to the conclusion of the game (which takes about 2 hours). I was only able to access it because a staff member was touring us through and gave us the behind-the-scenes look. As my husband said, that secret room with its mousy trappings was "the coolest part of the whole museum." Is this an example of a powerful reward for highly engaged visitors, or a missed opportunity for more visitors to see the Experimentarium as full of secrets and mystery?
As a second example, we later sojourned north to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, a lovely art museum surrounded by incredible grounds on the seashore. At one point, we strolled out a non-descript door from the cafe to examine an outdoor sculpture. Beyond the sculpture, we noticed a path, and then a gate. Uncertain whether we were leaving the museum's grounds, we wandered through the gate and into a magical enclave that included a mist-covered pond, a wavy slide, and several art installations--whimsical huts of all kinds. While the museum and the main grounds were packed, this large and beautiful outdoor area was virtually deserted--not surprising given how hard it was to find.
In both of these museums, our favorite experiences came when we stumbled onto or were let into these secret, exclusive places. We felt a special kind of ownership of these spaces that we had discovered. We were like the early explorers, delighting in our own cleverness, ignoring evidence that these places had been previously discovered by other worthy trekkers (and of course, created by their designers).
It's very hard for a museum to justify dedicating space and resources to something that will remain unmarked and unadverstised. Especially in the case of Louisiana, which was packed with people, we were shocked that such a beautiful part of the grounds were kept "private" when it could have been occupied by many happy visitors. But these were also the most memorable parts of our visits, the aspects I felt compelled to share with friends and family--and with people like you.
Could your institution include an intentional set of hidden surprises, a secret "extra level," or just a hidden door to a small experience? Would you be willing to exclude the majority to give a small group a sense of specialness that might not be otherwise attainable? What's the business argument for doing so, and how much space and money might be usefully employed in such a manner?