Douglas Hegley, Samantha Porter and Colin McFadden

Chief Digital Officer of MIA Douglas Hegley and inventors Samantha Porter and Colin McFadden turn the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) into a puzzle room.
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Music Credit: NY composed and perfomed by Kosta T from the album Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Douglas Hegley: Museums should really be about inspiration. It should be about emotion. It should be about I’ve moved through space where thoughtful people have put some of the greatest things human beings have ever been able to create. And now I feel at home there and I'm excited by it and I can't wait to go back. That's what we’re aiming for.

Jo Reed: That’s the chief digital officer of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Douglas Hegley. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. This fall, visitors to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, also known as Mia, have an added treat in store for them. The museum is transforming itself into a giant puzzle room. For the uninitiated, puzzle rooms are, simply put, places that create a challenge or mystery that a group of friends solve together by finding and deciphering clues that are hidden within that room. It’s usually within a specified period of time. It really is like a video game come to life. Samantha Porter and Colin McFadden, who work at a University of Minnesota lab dedicated to bridging the technology-liberal arts divide, had an idea of creating an app that would turn Mia into a puzzle room with clues found in the works of art. They named the project Riddle Mia This. Sam and Colin submitted Riddle Mia This to a competition the Minneapolis Institute of Art started called the 3M Art and Technology Award. Sam Porter and Colin McFadden won the 2018 award. They are on the line with me from Minneapolis, but first, here’s Mia’s Chief Digital Officer Douglas Hegley to give a little background about how all this got started.

Douglas Hegley: So about three-and-a-half years ago I was talking to Kaywin Feldman, who is the director and president at Mia, about trying to engage broader audiences including audiences who are very interested in digital and design and technology who weren’t really seeing themselves as part of an art museum experience. We went to 3M. 3M is all about innovation. We pitched an idea to them to fund a contest where we would reach out into the community and accept applications from people who reimagined what it’s like to be inside of a museum, to experience an art museum preferably not from an art museum perspective. So get something completely the outside of our walls so that both sides would learn. We, as an art museum, would learn about new technologies, new ways of imagining an art museum experience. And technologies would learn about art museums and sort of how cool we are. So that was one of our primary goals. We also reached out to Accenture. They’ve helped us with some logistics and marketing dollars and things like that. And we’ve been able to run this contest now for three years. We've been really happy with the process. Really happy with the sort of products that we've gotten. Really happy with what we’ve learned, as an institution, and very excited about this last year’s contest winner Riddle Mia This.

Jo Reed: Sam and Colin, explain Riddle Mia This.

Colin McFadden: This is Colin. When we started thinking about this award and just sort of brainstorming ideas for it, I think it was this past fall and we’d both been spending a lot of time doing these physical puzzle rooms which have become a really hot thing in the Twin Cities and really nationwide, a sort of social experience of getting together with a group of friends and going to one of these riddle rooms or puzzle rooms or escape rooms. They have all kinds of different names. And having to sort of engage in this problem-solving with your friends. And also sort of imagine yourself in this alternate universe where you're a wizard or you're an investigator or you’re criminal. And so, we were, I think, both really excited from having done these and trying to think about how we could do more of them. And the announcement from the museum just happened to sort of land at this time when this was on our minds. And we started thinking, well, the museum is this absolutely amazing space. It's this space you can sort of imagine yourself exploring. And you can imagine yourself in all of these different ways as a visitor already. What if we could sort of transform your experience of the museum into that kind of problem-solving adventure? And in our day jobs we do a lot of work with some emerging imaging technologies like 3D scanning and virtual reality, and augmented reality. And so this was sort of a natural fit to say like let's take what we’re doing in our day jobs and take what we’re doing for fun on the weekends with our friends, and mash them up into a proposal.

Jo Reed: Sam, tell me how you began thinking about this? What are the early steps in creating Riddle Mia This?

Samantha Porter: We’re trying to think of different story ideas, what's something that’s going to be engaging and interesting to a lot of different people. We’re also working, you know, with the museum to think, okay, what are specific works of art that might speak to people, do we want to feature? But then anytime you’re developing something you have to think of logistical issues, you know. If you want to think about accessibility how can you guide people through the museum where it doesn't matter if you can't take four flights of stairs? If we do, for example, want to put something augmented on a contemporary piece of art where the artist is living, do you have to communicate with the artist? You know, I come from an archaeology background with ancient 50,000-year-old pieces where, you know, that's not as much of a question.

Jo Reed: Ah, the almighty permission forms, how well I know them.

Samantha Porter: So, throw bunch of ideas on Post-it notes and then we can get together and see what, as a group, seems like is going to stick and be most exciting to the most number of people.

Douglas Hegley: Can I jump in on that, Josephine? This is Douglas, there's a couple things that are very important at Mia. One, we are 100 percent a visitor-centered organization. So these decisions about what works of art will come alive and be part of the story really depend more on our visitors than on a curatorial perspective. So we’re 100 percent in on being as engaging and interesting and open to ideas as anyone else. And then, number two, what Sam was referencing too, we don’t go away in secret and build things and then foist it on the public and see what they think. We actually build things in partnership with the public so we build in small iterations, trying things out on paper, seeing how people respond. We adjust. We try again. We adjust. We try again. So in the end, what we have is a product that we love but that our visitors already love and feel like they have an ownership stake in from the beginning.

Jo Reed: So you're really describing a collaborative process with the public as well, the public being a partner.

Samantha Porter: And that's part of the general game design process is you develop something, you get testers to come in, and you see what they like, what they dislike, and you iterate on that several times.

Colin McFadden: This is Colin. I think one of the things in game development that the common wisdom is you have to be willing to throw out everything you've done once you put it in front of people because it's very likely that your first draft because you're so wrapped up in your own thought process and you’ve already imagined, well, of course people will understand X, Y, and Z. And so you have to really go in without a lot of personal investment in it and be willing to say yeah, I learned a lot. And now I’m going to start over.

Jo Reed: Sounds fascinating. And it sounds like an enormous amount of fun, as well

Samantha Porter: Hopefully.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Sam your background, you're a digital preservation specialist and that's one of those occupations that I think I know what it means but I'm really not sure.

Samantha Porter: Well, it's sort of confusing from that term. Some people assume that means I know how to preserve code or digital data or software. But, actually, what I do is take physical objects, whether it's two or three dimensional and then use advanced technologies to preserve those digitally. So as Colin mentioned, our lab does a lot of things like 3D scanning and high resolution imaging for that.

Jo Reed: And Colin you are a technology architect. And again, I could guess but I really don’t know what that means.

Colin McFadden: Technology architect, it’s one of these terms that we apply to jobs that doesn't mean a whole lot. If you move between organizations everyone sort of uses it in a different way. To my mind, I'm sort of a person who comes out of a development background. I have a lot of experience building software but I also have a lot of experience thinking about strategy and policy and the ways in which actual users intersect with technology. I’ve worked in higher ed for almost 20 years now. And the ways in which we sort of often foist technology upon faculty and students can be really problematic. And so my job is to sort of try and think of that from the high level perspective of what our actual impact on our student, staff, and faculty is when we’re working with technology.

Jo Reed: Well, here’s a question to all three of you. This project is coming along at a time when there really is beginning to be a rethinking about the ways we use technology in our lives. It is immensely valuable and beneficial, but we are also starting to understand that there are ways that it can be harmful. So, it strikes me as an interesting time to do this project because you can take into account some of the criticisms that people have about technology right now.

Douglas Hegley: I think it's an interesting point. This is Douglas. You know, that one of the risks of technology is isolation, that people bury their faces in a screen, they don't interact in real life. And one of the things that's engaging for us, as an art museum, we are a space within which experience happens. What we’re trying to do is attract new audiences and allow all of the audiences to have new kinds of experiences in their space. But generally, people come to a museum in groups. They come in pairs. They come in larger groups. They're looking for a social experience. All of our survey data shows us that people come together. It's an activity to do with other human beings. This idea of solving a puzzle, and I'm not an expert on puzzle rooms by any means, but it's a social activity. People work together. They collaborate to figure things out. And we've got an interesting challenge on our hands. We're not going to lock anyone in a museum and then force them to figure out the way out. But we want them to think…

Jo Reed: Oh, come on!

Douglas Hegley: Security might not like that too much, maybe after hours. One of the things that delights people in a museum is when they say, “Hey Colin, look at this. Hey, Sam look what I found over here.” I think this kind of game interface that will be familiar as a game but unfamiliar in a museum space creates a real opportunity for people to interact with one another. And when people do that they have a much more delightful experience. They come back to museums. They love museums.

Colin McFadden: And this is Colin, just to jump in on that as well. One of the things we really want to do with that, the augmented reality part of this, is not make it something where you hold up your phone and it tells you the name of the piece of art you're looking at. We really want the experience itself to force you to look at the work without looking through the phone. We’re not using this just as a way to supplement the piece. We want you to actually have to look at the stuff in the museum and think about it. And unless you do that, they are going to be clues you're not able to solve because it's not going to be, you know, find five sparrows in this gallery. It's going to require you to read and look and think and understand maybe what the piece is trying to say and connect that back to clues. And so we’re really hoping to get people to engage in a way that they might not if they're just sort of wandering through the museum.

Samantha Porter: Yeah. And I guess what I would add to that is in terms of the literature I'm seeing in the archaeological cultural, digital cultural heritage fear is people have found that if someone goes to a museum, they see a work in a glass case or on a wall, they read the didactic statement and they sort of accept that as truth and they move on. But if you have any way of interacting with that work more directly, be it digitally or with something like a 3D print people's body language changes and the way they think about that work changes completely. If it's an artifact, you can empathize with people who may have used that in the past. And, again, I think this is an example of using technology as a tool to help people connect in a more personal, emotional way.

Jo Reed: Puzzle rooms are fun. And part of its charm, as Douglas has pointed out, it does take technology out of isolation. Suddenly you’re with a group of people and you have to figure out this problem together.

Douglas Hegley: This is Douglas. I was thinking as we were talking, I’ve been working in museums now for almost 21 years but my actual background is in clinical psychology, which kind of puts me in a unique position to be leading up a digital operation but thinking mostly about people and what people are experiencing and what their motivations would be. One of the things that's vital in the way that we work also-- I mean it would be easy for you to imagine we found these two young smart technologists from the local university. They’re going to come in and work with the IT department and they're going to make a tech thing. No, no, no. That's not the way we work. The team that actually has the lead on anything we do digitally in the galleries is a cross functional team that includes a representative from curatorial, someone from education, someone from visitor experiences, and someone from digital technology working together as a team so that they are delivering on all the kinds of variables that each of those perspectives brings to a museum experience.

Jo Reed: And for you Sam, and you Colin, in terms of your relationship with Mia before you were part of this project, did you look at as, well, that's my museum? That's where I go.

Samantha Porter: Frankly my earlier memories are of making piñatas in the back of Mia during an art class when I was five or six because I grew up in Minneapolis. I remember specifically going in front paintings and using a flashlight to point out different parts of those works of art. So I would absolutely say Mia has been an important, influential part of my life.

Colin McFadden: And for me, I didn't come to the Twin Cities until I did my undergrad here at the University of Minnesota. But one of my first classes freshman year was an art history class that had us going down to Mia as part of the class and pick a piece of work and do research on it and then write a paper on it. And all of that, the things that stick with you from undergrad, I can remember everything about the particular piece I chose, you know, 20 years later.

Jo Reed: I grew up in New York City right down the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I still regard it as my museum even though I haven't lived in New York for quite some time. But there is the sense of I'm home and I find that so interesting about art that you apprehend when you're young I think somehow just stays with you forever. It's imprinted on you.

Douglas Hegley: That's a wonderful perspective. This is Douglas. My father was a high school art teacher so I guess it imprinted on me somewhere. I never intended to work in an art museum. My first job in an art museum was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Jo Reed: Oh, my museum.

Douglas Hegley: Your museum. And then I worked there for 14 years. And then I was recruited to come here to Minneapolis. I was hesitant until I met with the other executive team members and really got the sense of their spirit of turning all of their attention toward helping people just have delightful, wonderful experiences in a museum. So this museum has a kind of wonderful, humble sense about it. General admission is free. It is always free. Anyone can walk in and stand in front of that Rembrandt painting of Lucretia in five minutes after walking through the door for free. And that kind of accessibility, that kind of-- you know, the local press called us a few years ago, the People's Museum. And we kind of like that idea. We are the People's Museum. We see lots of repeat visitation. We have lots of people who are very loyal. And the museum means a lot to them. And that's important to us.

Colin McFadden: This is Colin. And one of the things that when we were going through the pitch process around this project someone had sort of brought up a concern, well, what if people are sort of being too boisterous as they’re playing this and Douglas said, straight up, “The museum is not a library.” And for us, that was like, okay, these are people who get it.

Jo Reed: Yeah, it's just an interesting perspective how we do tend to make taking in art in some ways almost a religious experience. It's like going to church. We’re very quiet. We’re very respectful. And, of course, one needs to be considerate, however, it's an experience.

Douglas Hegley: Definitely.

Jo Reed: Let me ask all of you, Minneapolis always strikes me as such a cultural hub. And it is this wonderful intersection of art and technology. And I'm curious about your thoughts about why it has become this wonderful place that’s just bubbling with culture and with technology?

Douglas Hegley: I don't know that we’re the experts on answering that question. This is Douglas. I can give you some of my perspective coming from a long time in New York City working in nonprofits, including an art museum coming here. There are couple of things that struck me immediately. One, that there's a considerable pride of place here. People who live here really love it here and they really support their local communities. They go to things. They attend. So they’re cultural consumers. Secondly, there are actually, I think, particularly if you calculate per capita there are more Fortune 500 headquarters here than anywhere else in North America. And most of those headquarters have some kind of giving foundation. And they're very involved in local education, in local cultural experiences. They’re really staunch supporters of what we do. So there's funding and there's interest. Those two things when you put them together, it's very dynamic. And then lastly, I think, you have to thank the people who sort of came here and founded this city on the Mississippi with water driven flour mills that brought trains, that brought banking, that fed the nation. They had money to spare. And they used that money to build magnificent mansions, to collect incredible works of art, sometimes way ahead of their time. There were collectors in this city collecting Asian art well before it was popular. Collecting impressionist paintings before they were thought of as being even made by anyone with skill. So, you had some really forward thinking people here who had the wherewithal to do it and had to sort of social commitment to then share it with the community. So it's built-up over, I think, more than 100 years of history.

Colin McFadden: This is Colin. I also think that the Twin Cities benefit from our location. And the fact that it's really cheap to live here and that actually affords a lot of what we love about it. We have this amazing diversity. But when we look at, for example, the game development scene the Twin Cities has one of the hottest, especially, for independent developers, the hottest game development scenes. And a lot of that is because you can afford to live here and be a full-time independent game developer. You don't need to go get a bunch of venture capital funding and spin up a big company. You can sort of do this from a co-working space or from your house and get by in a pretty reasonable way. And that's, I think, what has a lot allowed a lot of people to really explore their passions. You know, we have this amazing art scene. We have this amazing game development scene. These people who if they were in New York or San Francisco this would have to be hobby, whereas here it can actually be a job.

Jo Reed: Right. In New York you need venture capital to afford an apartment.

Samantha Porter: I was one of those people that I grew up here. I left. I actually went to New York for my undergraduate. And like a lot of my friends I came back. My other friends who are in the Bay Area, they have nice tech jobs, they want to come back and be part of this culture, again, raise their kids here. People are friendly. You can make a joke about Minnesota nice here.

Jo Reed: I like nice very much. The cold, not so much. But hence, people go to museums a lot, it’s cold. Douglas, the museum is free. And God bless you for that. I would like you to just talk for a moment what it means to Minneapolis to have this free glorious museum?

Douglas Hegley: I think it means a lot. We sometimes stake the claim that we’re the largest arts educator in the state. And that’s based on the fact that almost 200,000 schoolchildren come to the museum every year. And if their schools can't afford the buses, we pay for them. And that money is raised by something called the Friends of Mia which is a classical auxiliary organization who has a commitment to this kind of thing. And Mia doesn't sit like the Met does on Fifth Avenue or like the Dallas Museum of Art would in an arts district. Mia sits on what used to be a large sort estate from one of the storied families of Minnesota. It's within walking distance of downtown. But it's not right on downtown. It sits on a park. There are neighborhood houses across the street so people just sitting down having dinner right across the street from the museum. It's sitting in the middle of a neighborhood which also happens to be the most diverse demographically neighborhood in all of the Twin Cities. So we feel very attached to the community and very open to the community and the kind of place where we hope everyone sees themselves being, moving through, learning, enjoying, visiting for ten minutes one day and for three hours the next because you're not paying some big ticket. It's not some sort of bucket list thing that you're doing. It's more about engaging and being a part of what's going on in the Twin Cities.

Jo Reed: Colin, Sam, do you want to jump in?

Colin McFadden: Well, I'd repeat the statement you made about the weather. You know, the museum is this warm place. It's warm sort of spiritually and physically as well. But it's a place that, you know, in our winters you can go and escape into this different world. You've got art. You've got community there. There's always sort of energy there. And you can lose yourself in there on a negative 20 or 30 degree day in Minnesota and that's an amazing thing to have. And for everyone in the community to be able to that, that's a pretty rare experience.

Jo Reed: Now, I want you all to think 30 years down the road and take a moment and just fantasize about what you think museums of the mid-21st century might be like?

Douglas Hegley: I think it might take more than a moment. This is Douglas. You know, museums remain collecting institutions. But the sort of price and availability of the old masters has now put them beyond the reach of most museums. So what we collect now often more contemporary and more and more something that we call time-based media which typically now is sort of born digital works of art. People are working in virtual reality. Artists themselves are creating digital works that are shared through other kinds of interfaces. It would surprise me greatly if 30 years from now that isn't a more dominant presence in most museums. That the idea of technology being a sort of brick in your pocket or earphones on your head will probably go away. It will be more immersive, less obtrusive, more a part of your everyday experience. And it will be allowing you both to access maybe deeper information about some of the classic works, the 10,000-year-old stone tablets. But also allow you to sort of experience and observe and maybe even sometimes take part in works of art that are more digital and more interactive. I see contemporary art very much going in that direction. So I think you'll just happen to see more and more of them. Most museums, art museums, now talk about making sure we have a black box gallery somewhere. Making sure that we've got the infrastructure in place to support this kind of thing. We’re doing a lot of work to consider something Sam touched on earlier, digital preservation. So if we’re going to acquire works of art that are actually born digital how do we make sure 100, 200, 300 years from now people can still experience those? Those are challenges that we face. But I think that's one road that you’ll see. I don't think-- you know, the experience of the authentic is still such a part of the museum. There's no way that museums sell their Rembrandt’s and Monet’s in order to buy digital stuff. That will never happen and thank goodness. It shouldn't happen. Those real objects will still be there and people will travel miles in order to see the real thing. No matter how many digital versions or copies or animations you might have, people will still want to see the real thing. I believe museums will still exist as physical spaces but I think they'll be more activated and enlivened.

Samantha Porter: I think what I’ll add is I was at a working group and there were a bunch of librarians there and they were having a similar discussion about what is a library. And what one person says is, Okay, you know, libraries maybe you think of as collections of books. But what’s our actual purpose?” And they were reformatting it as our purpose is to connect, right? So it’s connecting people with books, but also connecting people with information, people with other people. So I can sort of see that as an analogy, right? It's connecting you to works of art but what else could it connect you to?

Jo Reed: Or in different ways, connecting you with works of art, which is exactly what Riddle Mia This is doing.

Samantha Porter: Right, exactly.

Jo Reed: And using technology in such an interesting way. The project strikes me as so thoughtful and so much fun and just a marvelous way to go through a museum.

Douglas Hegley: That's the plan. This is Douglas. We want to engage people like Colin and Sam to come to Mia and reimagine it from their perspectives. And one of the things I’ve cautioned them about is not drinking too much of the museum Kool-Aid. I don't want them to become insiders. I want them to be outsiders who envision something new and different, something they and their friends would love to do, something their friends will tell their friends that they just had this wonderful, wonderful experience. And they won’t be saying things like hard benches, hard floors, bad coffee. That shouldn't be what the museum is really about. Museums should really be about inspiration. It should be about emotion. It should be about I’ve moved through space where thoughtful people have put some of the greatest things human beings have ever been able to create. And now I feel at home there and I'm excited by it and I can't wait to go back. That's what we’re aiming for.

Jo Reed: Well, I truly cannot wait to visit Minneapolis and play Riddle Mia This. And you really do have to let me know when it goes up because I really do you plan on coming.

Douglas Hegley: Well, since I know you follow the museum on Facebook and Twitter you'll have plenty of advance warning for that. Right?

Jo Reed: And indeed, we do. But good plug. Douglas, thank you. And Sam and Colin, congratulations, again. It really is a wonderful, wonderful project. And hooray for 3M. And hooray for Mia for doing it.

Douglas Hegley: Thank you so much for having us.

Colin McFadden: Thanks.

Samantha Porter: Thanks.

Jo Reed: Thank you. That’s Douglas Hegley, the chief digital officer at Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Samantha Porter and Colin McFadden— they’re inventors of the award-winning app Riddle Mia This. Riddle Mia This which will transform the Minneapolis Institute of Art into a puzzle room this fall. Follow the museum on Twitter to get the launch date at ArtsMia. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts, please, and if you’re so inclined, leave us a rating on apple—it does help people to find us.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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More and more museums are moving away from focusing entirely on the content of their collections to focusing on the experience of visiting a museum. Douglas Hegley at MIA had the idea reach out to the tech community and ask them to develop ideas for alternative ways to experience the museum. So MIA teamed up with 3M to create The 3M Art and Technology Award to do just that. Meanwhile founders of the Advanced Imaging Service for Objects and Spaces at the University of Minnesota, Sam Porter and Colin McFadden loved puzzle rooms-- places that create a challenge or mystery that a group of friends solve together by finding and deciphering clues usually within a specified period of time. Sam and Colin combined their expertise to create the app which won the 2018 award: “Riddle Mia This” which transforms MIA into a giant puzzle room. Douglas, Sam and Colin join me to talk about the how and why of it all.