Art of Escape, Magic, and immersive storytelling: The Museum as a Limitless Escape Game
Magus Cagliostro, Wonders.do, Israel
In the past years the concept of Immersive Storytelling has taken root in art and play, entering fields such as theatres, documentaries, games and education. The idea is to break the barriers between spectator and media and to create a “real life” experience – for amusement or instruction. Magus Cagliostro has been using principles of Immersive Storytelling and “real life” experience in a different way: It all began with a search for creative ways to bring new audiences to museums and to control audience flow. The idea was to use principles of Immersive Storytelling to create a fascinating story that is based on the museum’s contents, but which takes place entirely within the players minds. Since the summer of 2017, six exciting projects were created by Cagliostro in collaboration with museums in Israel and Europe. The stories are based on a specific scene and its contents – whether it is Art, history or science. By doing this, the plot merges with the scene and the players become closely involved with it as they follow the game. Virtual reality is achieved by purely analogue means, relying on the audience’s own power of imagination. Now, Magus Cagliostro, escape artist and magician, invites you to learn more about how escape art, magic performance, and storytelling can be applied to the sphere of museum curating. Come and see how the basic museum visit can be turned into an entirely new experience, full of surprises, mystery and magic. In this limitless escape game, there is always more than meets the eye, and there is no one better to reveal that than a true magician.
Keywords: magic-immersive-escape game-creativity-vision-limitless
Twenty-first Century Museums as Immersive Activity Centers –Art of Escape in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem: A Case Study
Eli Bruderman, Israel Cagliostro Oxman, Nurit Karshon
“Be relevant,” “be dynamic,” “be interactive”—these are some of the imperatives for museums of the twenty-first century. A museum that does not follow these demands will eventually lose its significance for its immediate community and for more remote audiences. However, being relevant and interactive is no easy task for museums in a world of virtual reality (VR) and social media that easily grab the attention of younger and older people, making them practically immersed in a parallel reality. How can museums make themselves relevant in such an era, when they are still, in many ways, rooted in rapidly outdating Modernist concepts?
This paper discusses a project that began at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and was subsequently carried out in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and in other smaller museums in Israel. The Israel Museum collaborated with Magus Cagliostro, an Israeli performing magician, and with Mayan Rogel, scenarist and storyteller, to design an escape-room-based game that took place in the museum, relying on the existing museum contents, without interrupting the regular activity of the museum and its exhibitions. We claim that this immersive game constituted an alternative museal-space that induced audiences to an immersive action and turned the museum into a fictional realm of inquiry.
Our present study has two focal points – the museum, with its needs and purposes, and the museum audience, with its subjective experience of the game. From the museum’s point of view, such a project sheds light on the role of museums, questioning their traditional, authoritative role and reassessing their educational function and their role in the community. It also demonstrates how problems of visitor traffic-flow can be dealt with creatively.
The experience of the museum audience will be discussed by analysing the players’ experience in terms of “wonder” and “make believe,” as we rely both on literary theory and on studies about immersive storytelling and the experience of magic. Some data from audience questionnaires will be summoned in order to assess the participants’ actual reactions to the game.
A large-scale game was run four times, twice at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (Art of Escape 1.0, August 2017; Art of Escape 2.0, August 2018) and twice at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (The Secret Formula, July-August 2018 and December 2018). This paper describes the first game in Jerusalem, as a single case study.
Although our present study is not a quantitative one, we do have a large set of audience feedback from which we can draw a tentative impression about the game. A future study based on the entire data may be useful for appreciating more accurately the impact of the game both on the players’ subjective experience and on some of the museum’s objectives.
From Modernism to Postmodernism: Museums in a course of change
Four main factors have influenced the way museums perceive their function and place in society in the Postmodern era: the new field of Visual Culture, which introduced a critical attitude toward the field of art; an accelerating globalization, which created a higher mobility of populations and constant reduction of tourism costs; an expanding discourse of identity politics, a major scene of which were the museums, sometimes to their own dismay; and finally, the educational turning point in museums (O’Neill, 2012: 167), brought on considerably by the former three factors.
The field of Visual Culture, a product of the cultural turn of the 1960s, is one of several power structures that influenced change in the art world in general, and particularly in museums. This field of research and criticism seeks to break customary, rigid systems of interpretation, searching instead for new meanings in a work of art, beyond the image itself and its innate properties. It studies the role of any image present in our culture, from traditional oil paintings to images on television, or a present-day tablet screen. Although such images are not comparable within a dichotomy of high versus low art, they are on par with each other within a system of visual representational categories.
Rather than seeking the universal, ideal principles inherent in the old aesthetic notions of enlightenment, Visual Culture studies aspects of aesthetics within a cultural context. Its fundamental practice is to observe an image’s cultural function and its relation to a net of culture-forming images that represent power structures (Mirzoeff, 2002; Mitchell, 2002; Dickovitskaya, 2006). The field of images is scanned for differences, identifying marginal and central forces, political identities, differences between genders. This differs fundamentally from theories of aesthetics such as the “universal response” theory, which assumes that the aesthetic reaction of any spectator to an object depends on the object itself, regardless of context. Notions of value, beauty and high art are no longer relevant as signifiers of art objects (Harris, 2002, ch. 1-2). That is why the study of Visual Culture does not focus on artistic canons (Liebes, 2004). Such notions of research and theory necessarily lead to the annulment of hierarchies between high and low art.
Culture studies acknowledge a state of inequality in industrialized, capitalist countries, regarding race, gender and class. From such point of view, culture (and primarily high art) is not seen as a detached, autonomous entity, but as a sphere of social differences and struggles. Cultural sites of “high art,” such as museums, are no longer seen as representing a specific community of artists, art critics, viewers, collectors etc., but as a site that presents competition and conflicting representations of different groups. The study of Visual Culture is thus an academic study of contemporary culture from an anti-hegemonic, anti-elitist point of view (Callen, 2002; Garb, 2002).
Therefore, as traditional advocates of the “universal” attitude in the manner of enlightenment (Van Essen, 2016), museums have been affected by the attitude of Visual Culture theory. Being typical shrines, so to speak, of high, elitist art, with archives and treasures associated with the power of economic elites and of Western hegemony (Bruderman, 2012: 184), museums were increasingly regarded as representatives of an exploitive culture that encourages inequality, with a select elite that judges between adequate art objects and those unworthy for a museum.
The museum’s practice of solidifying the Western aesthetic stance is achieved by constructing a cultural space with some typical traits. It is a space that creates a distance between the work of art and daily life. It distinguishes between art and craft on the one hand and between art and popular art on the other. It requires a state of unbiased contemplation, and is accompanied by a technical jargon. This cultural space frames its objects, isolating them as rare specimens, thus making them a source of cultural and aesthetic authority. It also sets professional codes for collecting objects and estimating their value, based on academic research that determines whether an object is culturally significant and adequate. Finally, museums develop technologies for transmitting information and define norms of education and instruction.
Beyond their role of displaying and representing culture, museums, in fact, influence our modes of knowledge about the world (Van Essen, 2016), creating, furthermore, a symbolic framework of this knowledge. Through displaying and interpreting material objects, museums fashion perceptions of time and space and promote a symbolic (semiotic) internalization of these perceptions (Plokhotnyuk & Mitrofanenko, 2018). Hence, a museum can be seen as a socializing institution that not only represents but also formulates cultural consciousness, popular artistic taste, notions of quality and differentiation between high and low art. The material objects a museum chooses to display have, in turn, an effect on social groups represented by these objects (O’Neill, 2012, Ch. 1).
In addition to social groups, the symbolic framing of knowledge by museums has a direct effect on individuals, too, shaping their physical bearing and behaviour. People cruising a museum are bound by rules that determine their conduct and enforce polite behaviour and the curbing of impulses and desires. This call for restraint and sublimation have made museums a valuable arena for certain aspects of education, especially in its authoritative sense.
Museums around the globe did not remain unresponsive to the various forms of criticism they faced in the past decades. As government support declined considerably in many countries, and as a digital revolution and surge of media prevailed, museum directors and curators felt the need to revise, as best as they could, their modes of presenting and representing and their treatment of art objects within the changing cultural space. Twenty-first century museums have a sense of obligation toward their audiences. They are bound to take into consideration almost any kind of audience, regardless of their cultural origins, artistic education or financial condition. The dynamic cultural space, with its autonomous museum visitor who is unbound to high-culture requirements, stands at the core of the existential crisis of museums (Falk, 2009: 185; Van Essen, 2006). Museums today are culturally, economically, and socially committed to their audiences more than they have ever been throughout their short history in Western culture.
The Youth Wing and art education: A new educational code in the Israel Museum
Notwithstanding these dramatic changes, a closer look proves that museums are not monolithic institutions, and that different departments within each museum respond differently and in different intensity to the cultural and spatial changes we have described. Some departments, or wings, seem to remain deeply rooted in enlightenment concepts of the museum’s role as preserver, sorter and presenter of cultural objects with no interest in the observer’s experience. Others attempt to combine the linear, authoritative Modernist space of contemplation and aesthetic sensitivity with the critical Postmodern space that encourages dialogue between audience and exhibition and resonates values and questions that are relevant to the community in which the museum resides. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem is no different in this respect, with some departments still imbedded in Modernist structures, as others tend toward a Postmodern, critical stance.
The Youth Wing for art education in the Israel Museum is an independent wing in the museum, following principles of new museology, with a view of museums as a dynamic field with the audience as its central axis. In recent years it has attempted to reach out to local population by designing special programs in the museum itself or out in the community, such as a kindergarten based on the museum’s teaching methods built in one of Jerusalem’s poor neighbourhoods.
A unique and intriguing method for connecting the public with the world of art was by creating a center for immersive activity. The museum’s Youth Wing seeks to be a center for community discourse, focusing on art and on the stories that emerge from its presentation. Art education means understanding a certain cultural story or representation through art. In order to create a deeper discourse, and for the story to be more convincing, immersive techniques have been applied, as will be demonstrated below (Falk, 2009: 21).
Immersive Game: Art of Escape as a system of immersive activity
The Art of Escape project is an immersive-story escape game for museums. The game takes place inside the museum spaces, with a background story that is linked to the museum and its contents, along with clues and riddles scattered around the museum, just like an escape game, leading to a code word for unlocking a door. The game normally lasts between one hour to ninety minutes, but there is no time limit, and the players can take as many breaks as they like, enter any exhibition or dwell on any item, without spoiling the experience of the game. Being a family game, solved by family teamwork, its contents must be suitable for all ages. The riddles are based on authentic information, encouraging the players to learn more about the displays and experience the museum in a new, deep, challenging way.
All these features have marked the project as a valuable immersive activity. As an educational tool it promotes creativity, intellectual curiosity, sensory alertness, motion, and emotion and social skills—and involves the challenge of doing all this in the setting of a museum.
Apart from the educational and didactic aspects of the game, this immersive game was beneficial for the museum itself, serving as a solution for two separate needs—the need to draw new audiences to the museum, especially youth (ages 13-18), and a geographic solution to a significant traffic-flow problem. The Israel Museum stretches over thousands of square meters, with multiple floors and levels. The upper floor, where the heavily publicized changing exhibitions take place, draws thousands of visitors every week, while the more remote galleries, farther removed from the Youth Wing and from the “Cardo” (the museum’s core), have always suffered a thin flow of visitors. This is the case especially in the permanent exhibitions of Modern Art, Archaeology and Old Masters Art. As a dynamic game of motion and research that trails the entire museum and its displays, Art of Escape presented a perfect solution to both parameters, of visitor-flow and of young audiences in the museum.
In order to be aligned with the needs of the museum and with the demands of the curators, an important principle of the game was to avoid any interference with the exhibitions or with the regular course of visitor traffic. This means the game had to be carefully planned, relying on natural museum props such as signs, stickers, sound tracks, screens, direction signals etc., with minimal physical intervention.
Although immersive storytelling is often associated with VR digital technology, the authors of Art of Escape made it a point to create a purely analogue game. Apart from social networks as promotional means, they avoided using digital means such as phone apps or Internet during the game itself. This aspect of the game will be discussed below.
Two other principles set for the game were no time limit and no losers. This positive, non-competitive experience, with no time pressure, fit perfectly to the museum’s needs. The game provided an educational, didactic experience, suited for families and children, encouraging them to learn and get acquainted with the museum as a whole and in detail.
Make believe, fiction and immersive experience
A bed-time story, a myth, a literary plot, a theater play – all these are kinds of fiction. Games, especially children’s games, are a sort of fiction, too, which we familiarly call “make-believe.” Kendall Walton, who examines the relation between fiction, art and make believe, speaks of make believe as a game played in the real world (Walton, 1978, 2015). Children at a playground, for example, use real objects for the make-believe world they invent. Any element from the real world entering the game assumes a new role, according to the make-believe rules invented by children at play. A broom can become a horse in battle, a stick fixed to the ground at a strategic spot can be a fortress to be conquered. Like magic, real objects become props of make-believe, whereby the real world enters the game and becomes a part of it (Walton, ibid.).
For a fictional game of make-believe to be successful, it must adhere to the reality principle, i.e., the game must follow the way things happen in the real world. The rules of the game itself are also borrowed from the real world. In a game where two competing groups try to conquer a fortress, the rules of the game are borrowed from real situations in which groups compete with each other. These attributes of the game, along with its props, carry their real-world properties, thereby immersing reality in the fiction, until the very boundaries between reality and fiction are obscured. This, in fact, is an essential force of the game. This mysterious link between make-believe and reality creates a powerful, long-lasting effect on the player’s mind.
Kendall Walton’s model of make-believe and fiction has been a deep source of inspiration for the immersive museum game. The Museum turned into a huge playground where children, teenagers and even grown-ups were able to bring to life a whole array of real objects (the exhibits), integrating them in the fictional game designed for them by Cagliostro. An Egyptian slave ship from the Pharaonic Period, or a pair of lions from the Canaanite era, would take on a new meaning within the fictional setting of the immersive game. The archaeological exhibits turned from lifeless objects in display cabinets into meaningful actors in an exciting play.
Art of Escape is the analogue version of VR art-games, in which the player can virtually enter a work of art and move about inside it. The difference between them is clear. Art of Escape has almost nothing to do with digital technology, and it relies on techniques of traditional immersive storytelling. However, a comparison between the two, with Walton’s model of make-believe as a conceptual basis, may throw light on the nature of the psychic state of the player in a digital game. In a VR game, reality no longer takes part in the fictional, or make-believe process. There is no mental process that fuses together, like magic, reality and the fictional world of the viewer, or player. In fact, a digital game that virtually draws the player into a painting loses the opportunity of using the real painting as a reality prop, to use Walton’s terms, which has the capacity, as he claims, of leaving a meaningful long-term mark on the player. We are contemplating a future comparative study of such kind.
Magic and Wonder: some principles of stage-magic
A work of fiction involves wonder and enchantment, and brings on a sense of magic. So does a game of make-believe. An immersive game draws on this magical process, in which reality is merged into the player’s imagination. In the case of the Immersive museum game, the actual museum and its exhibits were molded into a new story, forging a game experience that combined museal reality, the participants’ faculty of make-believe and a sense of magic. A brief note on the relation between fiction, immersive storytelling and the practice of stage magic can be instrumental for appreciating this sense of magic.
The psychological states of bafflement, fear or amazement in the face of a magical manoeuvre have been studied by cognitive scientists, especially since the publication in 2008 of a paper by Kuhn, Amlani and Rensink, endorsing such research (Kuhn et al., 2008, 2016). In this sense, stage magic, though based on illusion and sleight of hand, has a genuine power of fiction (make belief), just like art or literature (see Kuhn, 2019: 14). In an article published in Frontiers in Psychology (Smith et al., 2016), the basic routine of a conjuring trick is analysed in formal logical terms. Tracing its successive steps, the authors point at two parallel narrative “plots,” as they call them, happening at the same time: The plot as it unfolds before the audience appears magical and improbable, while the actual, or backstage plot, accessible only to the magician, is perfectly rational. This plot consists of a sequence of steps, or events, some of which are concealed, while others are emphasized by the magician (ibid.).
The paper also presents several basic principles of magic tricks, retrieved from texts written by performing magicians. Interestingly, four of these principles have a striking similarity to classical literary definitions that go back to Aristotle and Horatius: The principle of naturalness, the principle of the whole, the principle of clarity and the principle of focus (Smith et al., 2016). A further principle, not mentioned in this paper, yet discussed by Kuhn in the context of stage magic (2019: 14ff.), is the well-known literary concept of “willing suspension of disbelief,” coined by Coleridge in 1817 (Tomko, 2016), as a manner of allowing for literary themes of the wonderous and supernatural to sift back into an age of reason. The readers, or the audience of a play or movie for that matter, are well aware that what they read or see is fiction, yet they willingly become immersed in the story. Likewise, the viewers of a magic performance know that what they see is an illusion. Following Bouissac’s analysis of the circus as a cultural institution (Bouissac, 2018), we can say the audience is familiar with the cultural convention of a magic performance, and expect to be surprised and awed. Still, a competent magician will manage to baffle and surprise the audience all the same. In this sense, a person viewing a magic trick seems to be experiencing a reluctant suspense of disbelief. Perhaps this is the ultimate immersive experience.
To perform a magic trick, then, is, in a sense, to tell a story. The story appears to have a linear, natural course, but an unnatural, unreasonable outcome (Smith et al., 2016). The magician patches up the story, using actions and words that emphasize the pieces forming the “plot” while distracting the audience from those parts that must be concealed. This “plot,” in fact, is achieved by means of an immersive story, forged as a parallel course of reality that exists only in the mind of the beholder.
A similar effect happens in escape games, where the players become part of a story and assume an “immersed” state of mind, also described as a state of “flow” (Wiemker et al., 2015; Csíkszentmihályi, 1996). The escape game held in the Israel Museum had a plot, a theme, a message—but all these were cut to little pieces, and the players had to stitch them back together in their minds.
Art of Escape 1.0: The course of the game at the Israel Museum
Art of Escape 1.0 was launched by the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, in the summer of 2017 for a period of three weeks. It began with a background story, presented in a short video at the beginning of the game, about a young intern working at the museum, who is mysteriously contacted by Metatron, a guiding angel from ancient mystic traditions. Families who participated in the game were offered a choice of two tracks they could follow, each based on a separate theme: The adventurous intern led the players in a track exploring passage rites and passage between worlds, and Metatron led them in a quest after images of ancient goddesses. Both tracks explored the museum, passing through different eras and cultures.
Every track had five main stops, each of which concealed a letter from an ancient alphabet. The players collected these letters, and were eventually provided with a special table to decipher them. Every stop had a clue leading to the next location. Although the game was based on a fictional story, the clues themselves had to do with authentic information about displays in the museum. Finally, the players used the code word they had deciphered to unlock a large door, with an inscription that read: “Knowledge is the key that opens all doors.” As the families came out of that door, they received a family photo and a small present (a magic trick).
Three main principles were kept in mind as the game was being planned: direction of visitor traffic, access to museum contents and forming an immersive experience. Each track in the game had five stops, with additional stops shared by both tracks (a drinking spot, a booth for extra clues and an alphabet booth for deciphering the code word). Both tracks were circular, so families could start the game at any point they chose. This particular arrangement was designed in order to achieve a maximum spread of the players, avoiding pressure of traffic. The game was aimed at drawing the visitors to less popular spaces in the museums, while keeping these spaces within a significant cultural discourse and finding their relevancy to the visitors. The themes chosen for the game—Rites of passage and mystic traditions—are both important themes for secular and religious Jewish audiences. The great challenge was to give the visitors a sense of adventure that would physically and mentally immerse them in the spaces of the museum, in order to engage them and arouse their curiosity, so that their learning experience in the museum would leave a deep impression and a positive memory.
A look at 900 questionnaires handed out to families who participated in the game at the Israel Museum show a striking majority of positive, enthusiastic responses. As mentioned in the introduction, this study does not deal with a quantitative evaluation of the project and its effect on the museum experience. However, the great bulk of data does suffice for a preliminary assessment of the effects the game had both on the participants and on the museum’s needs. A few typical responses highlight several aspects of the museal project, which we intend to examine more thoroughly in a future study that will be based on an analysis of the full data:
- References to “fun” and to a positive experience
“It was fun and interesting.”
“It was fun and difficult.”
“The most fun experience in the world.”
“Wonderful. A family fun experience that exposes the children to the museum in a fun way.”
- References to the benefits of a family experience, that includes children of different ages:
“An excellent family experience.”
“A really cool initiative! It’s fun to see so many children in the museum!”
“What did you like best about the game? – cooperating with the children.”
- Getting to know the museum or seeing it in a new light:
“It exposed us to the museum and we could get to know it.”
“So cool! I would never enjoy a museum so much.”
“… An interesting way to get to know the museum.”
“… You see the museum from a different angle.”
- Aspects of audience flow, both in terms of managing large crowds and of directing people to all parts of the museum:
“What did you like best about the game? – That it happens in the entire museum.”
“… The experience of walking through the halls – experiencing the game while seeing the museum, too.”
“The game made us walk through lots of places in the museum we never reached in the past.”
- Some reactions show that people appreciated the didactic aspect of the game (“… [the children] were exposed to many exhibits, they showed interested and learned”), while others directly demonstrate its didactic effect, as the players retained a vivid memory of certain exhibits:
“What did you like best about the game? – the part about the Roman gods.”
“… – the riddle in the synagogue.”
“… – the riddle with the lions.”
In this paper we examined a museal immersive activity project from several points of view, suggesting that the approach of such a project is an imperative of twenty-first century museums, in order to comply with the basic demands of relevancy and interactivity. We touched on the themes of illusion, fiction, make believe and magic as tools for making museums approachable to young audiences.
A fuller picture of the project and its impact on the museum and on its audiences will be achieved, as mentioned above, based on a quantitative study of the full data collected from all four games in Jerusalem and in Amsterdam. However, a general look at audience responses from Art of Escape 1.0 gives a sense of a transformative experience and of a fascinating process in which objects exhibited in the museum entered the fictional world the families were constructing as they followed the game.
For the Israel Museum, it was an outstanding achievement that the exhibits throughout the museum were assuming a life of their own and enriching the audience’s experience in such a way that it became an active, involved audience, that was enjoying its interaction with the museum and could see it in a whole different light.
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