Museum Lessons from the House of Eternal Return
A few weeks ago I visited the museum-like installation the House of Eternal Return, part of the Meow Wolf art complex in an old bowling alley in Santa Fe. It was absolutely sui generis, an alternate reality game in exhibit form, an experiment in experiential storytelling where you were not only allowed but encouraged and indeed required to touch everything and wander everywhere. The premise is something has happened in a small-town house that has detached it from our dimension and that has required it to be quarantined. Your goal as a visitor is to figure out what happened to the family that lived in the house–by walking around, reading everything, opening all the drawers, and generally being attentive to clues, hints, and insinuations.
My primary mode of exploration is reading, so when I came into the house through its seemingly ordinary porch, I went into the living room and started to read the books and papers on the coffee table. I picked up a day planner put out by a charismatic leader who claimed to lead tour groups through interdimensional portals using crystals, and I soon realized that it was the leader’s own day planner, that the leader was the brother of the woman who lived in the house, and that something had gone dramatically wrong with him. While I was reading, small groups of people continually walked into the fireplace and never walked out.
I think the House of Eternal Return has a few lessons for museum practice.
Be attentive to energy. I have rarely seen such an excited. energized group of visitors at a cultural institution. Being allowed to touch and explore in a museum feels like you are constantly, thrillingly breaking the rules. Most visitors were in small groups, and it was a mix of groups with children and groups of multiple adults or of multiple teens, and the space encouraged visitors to talk to each other, direct each other, give each other hints. (I told another visitor in which room he should search for the combination to the safe.) How can we create joyful, playful spaces that encourage interactions and let visitors feel like insiders?
Reward multiple visits. I arrived right when the space opened, and there was already a line to get in. New Mexico residents pay less to enter, and it was clear that many visitors had been there before. (“Let’s go through the fridge first!”) The story was told through newspapers, cookbooks, diaries, a poster for a lost hamster, public-access TV, videos with actors showing what had happened in the house, strange lights, advertisements, and so on, a wild proliferation of details. The layered, non-linear storytelling, unclear layout, and deliberately absent wayfinding meant that it was easy to miss a detail that gave the story more texture, or one that seemed to solve everything, and encouraged visitors to come back even if they thought they had “solved” the story.
Lighting makes a difference. The otherworldly aspects of the places through the portals made extensive use of atmospheric lighting. Constant color changes, blacklights, darkened spaces, and even an installation where you could play music with beams of light. The strange dimensions through the portals were amazing but they were clearly made of low-cost materials (this was just the first Meow Wolf permanent exhibit and it is not clear how long they mean it to run. I can only imagine what the future ones might be like.) Lighting transformed everything.
And the most important lesson:
Everyone loves a hidden door. I watched a group of visitors walk into the kitchen. The adults started encouraging a little girl to open the fridge door. She opened it slowly and then let out a whoop of pure joy: behind the fridge door was pool of bright white light, a bright white passage to Somewhere Else. There were so many magical doors in the House of Eternal Return! The fridge was the most unexpected, but you could also go through the back of a closet (who has not wanted to go through the wardrobe?), the fireplace, and a cabinet under the stairs, not to mention all the less literal portals within the magical dimensions. I was delighted and transported and I am totally serious that we should be putting hidden doors in our exhibits. They are a relatively easy and inexpensive way to add moments of surprise, delight, and wonder, things we too often forget that museums are also for.