Thursday, November 05, 2009

More Delightful Secrets: How Much Space Would You Give to an Exclusive Subset of your Audience?

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?

10 comments, add yours!:

Kelly C. Porter said...

Next time I'm in Louisiana (which should be soon, in fact), I am definitely looking for that slide.

To behold something beautiful, or shocking, or intriguing in private is very different than to experience it in a group. Alone there is more space to emote, to react without the eyes of the world pressing in on you. You own the encounter exclusively, and it's precious for that reason-- so much of what we do when we are around others is social performance, scripted and programmatic. Certainly my most altering and sublime experiences, both in museums and in the world have been secretive and serendipitous--in places that are hopelessly difficult or idiosyncratic.

Some may laugh, but this is why I think the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City California (which, it should be said, is not quite a museum) is one of the most brilliant places on earth. You feel always as though you are being intimated something, alone in the dark, an initiate to mysteries unspeakably precious. While I am fully on the bandwagon of social and educational museum programming, to leave a little room for that other private experience of wonder is a lovely thing.

More slides in the woods, please.

Lindsey said...

The slide reminds me of the easter egg that you find in computer games. Press cross, triangle, square and find a hidden level...

Using the gaming model, would suggest that secret spaces make great marketing sense. They give players a hook to discuss the game, become engaged and take ownership; in the process providing passionate word of mouth marketing. The trick was always to subtly hint their presence, without blowing the secret completely.

Love the idea of encouraging a peek in a staff only room. I'm not so sure about only finding the 'rat room' after a two hour game. Was there any pay off if you didn't see the game right through to the end or chose the scientist route?

Unknown said...

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Nina Simon said...

You're right - the slide is definitely an easter egg, whereas the rat room is more like a top level--a reward for those who make it "all the way."

In my mind, these two examples perform two different functions: the Louisiana hidden garden is a surprise waiting for any curious person to find, whereas the Experimentarium rat room is a reward for the most dedicated. We probably would be well-served to offer both, though I suspect the randomness of the Louisiana garden makes it more effective from a "business" perspective. I can go there, tell my friend, and then she can do it too. The rats require more commitment from each subsequent visitor.

Anonymous said...

I experimente a strange exposition un Marseille MAC 2004: Carsten Holler's exposition.
you are the study's object.
All your senses are in action .
He gives you inversion-glasses, and you're invited to live in a room whith these glasses.
Or you're invited in a room where you can sweem in salt water in a tank like the death sea and then you can take a shower before continu the visit...
Margaux SIMON from france, studiyng with Yannick Prie, the project of ADVENE, anotation of movies....

margaux said...

pictures of the exposition carsten holler in marseille 2004 *
with the psychological tank !

margaux simon france.

Suzanne Fischer said...

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time at City Museum in St. Louis. Though the place was crowded with people of all ages, all the caves and tunnels and slides and things to climb felt like amazing secret surprises. When I learned that instead of taking the elevator to the roof we could find our way up through the caves, and we navigated our way there, I felt like an explorer.

Maybe surprises are as important as secrets, and exclusivity is really one of several means toward delight.

Christine Borne said...

Personally, I have never met anyone who did NOT harbor a little hope to one day come across a hidden door!

The museum that I used to work for was located in a historic mansion, with all kinds of secret servants' passageways and all that. The security guards knew all about them, but to my knowledge the museum never opened them up for tours, which I think is a missed opportunity!

I live in Cleveland, a city that's a shadow of its former self. This means we have a lot of abandoned buildings, many of which are architecturally interesting and prominent and centrally-located, so that thousands of people pass by them every day and think, "huh. I wonder what it looks like in there?" Last year the Downtown Cleveland Alliance organized a series of Hidden Cleveland tours, where they got permission to enter some of these empty and forgotten places. Not surprisingly, these tours sold out fast!

I wonder if you've heard of any history or city museums doing anything like that on a regular basis. To me, this would be a great way to engage a region's citizens and visitors with its recent local history.

Anonymous said...

Sort of the Arabesque festival at the Kennedy Center this past year, one of the art works was a large tunnel made of mirrors with computer-generated images on a screen at the end--you put cloth covers on your shoes and would go in one at a time--and if you read the artist's statement, you found out that the images on the screen NEVER reapeated--and this was up for 3 weeks--it wasn't secret and you didn't have to be the most dedicated visitor (unless the line was really long, and it often was) but it was great to have a private moment, knowing no one else would ever experience that situation--it was really delightful!

Dan Spock said...

I think the greatest museums usually contain hidden surprises of one kind or another. At the Minnesota History Center we've tried to do this and do it with the acknowledgement up front that not everyone will encounter them. We see them as a kind of reward for looking harder. I like to use the analogy of an advent calendar to describe pleasing museum experiences. There's anticipation, discovery, surprise, progressive reveal and you get to do it yourself.