Five years ago, Jane McGonigal locked me inside the New York Public Library overnight. I didn’t particularly mind…after all, it did give me the opportunity to thoroughly explore the library while waiting for the building to open for business the next day. Did you know Charles Dickens had his deceased cat’s paw taxidermied and affixed to an ivory letter opener? Or that a special run of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was bound with asbestos-lined covers? I even got to briefly explore the library’s underground stacks. The experience was part of the New York Public Library’s Find the Future event, a 500 person scavenger hunt through some of the library’s most fascinating artifacts on display to celebrate its 100th anniversary. I still have fond memories of that night under lockdown at the library,  and I was brought back to that moment last night at the Franklin Institute.

The Franklin Institute is a museum in Philadelphia that takes hands-on science seriously. Exhibits ask visitors to do everything from learning about Newton’s laws of motion by using pulleys to lift themselves off the ground, to showing the limits of short-term memory by seeing how many numbers visitors can remember in order to open an increasingly complex combination safe. The museum even holds monthly themed “Science After Hours” events to ensure learning about science remains exciting for people of all ages. Last night, the Franklin Institute’s after-hours event was themed around crime scene investigations, with special stations set up around the museum to teach visitors everything from cryptography to forensic science, through live demonstrations. Mixed into the schedule was a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum for the first 20 museum members to sign up.

The guided tour started off normally, highlighting the museum’s close relationships with the Wright Brothers and its collection of artifacts. The Franklin Air Show exhibit even features diagrams the brothers drew on strips of wallpaper…or at least it would have, if the wallpaper hadn’t gone missing. In its place? A clue, leading our group of 10 to areas of the museum typically not accessible to the public ranging from executive corridors to library stacks. It culminated with the recovery of the missing artifact, as well as the opportunity to see items from the museum archives not normally shown on display.

Libraries and museums have been exploring the use of puzzle hunts and alternate reality games to increase engagement for quite some time. Before the New York Public Library’s Find the Future scavenger hunt, the Smithsonian American Art Museum created mission-based experiences enabling visitors to explore new ways of interacting with exhibits. The Springfield Art Museum even extended its in-museum narrative experience of staged crime scenes online through a web series, with alternate-reality-show bounty hunters hunting down paintings that broke out of their frames and into the real world. Museums have even experimented with themed educational adventures as separate exhibits, like 5-Wits’ Operation Spy, an early predecessor to room escape games designed for the International Spy Museum.

What sets the Franklin Institute’s recent foray into narrative design apart is its focus on applying a narrative lens to the story of what happens behind the curtains at venues.  While traditional behind-the-scenes tours are already a staple at patron-backed institutions because it allows supporters to see the full breadth of what their funds are going to support, many functions kept behind the scenes are there for a reason. Knowing that the Franklin Institute maintains a library of books hidden out of sight from its more hands-on exhibits is important, but the stacks were designed for function over form, so the primary joy of getting to walk through the reference library is the transgressive element of knowing you’re walking through an area you’re ordinarily not allowed to be exploring. The experience becomes much more targeted and meaningful when you’re heading to the library to locate a very special book that will help solve a mystery.


Orville Wright’s cipher machine, from the Franklin Institute archives

One of the most exciting parts of the Franklin Institute’s recent foray into narrative-driven tours is its potential for reimagining behind-the-scenes tours and events at museums, zoos, gardens, and historical sites now that room escape games and immersive theater experiences have grown more mainstream. Every year, I visit the MIT campus to participate in the school’s annual Mystery Hunt. For the most part, it’s not necessary to work on the puzzles on campus, as almost every puzzle is available online, and the participating teams have developed robust online collaborative platforms. While it’s nice to be physically present with groups tackling challenging problems as a social activity, a major allure of solving on campus is getting to participate in runarounds – narrative scavenger hunts that plumb the school’s labyrinthine halls. I have fond memories of a school I never attended because I raced through the campus trying to recruit characters for a bank heist, assemble a cast of terrible people to perform the worst musical ever written, or save Wonderland. Transforming a behind the scenes tour of the Franklin Institute into an adventure has created similar memories for me, drawing on the museum’s archives to highlight the space’s area of expertise in an entertaining manner.

The Franklin Institute’s novel approach to behind the scenes tours was just a pilot program, so it remains to be seen whether more people will get to puzzle their way through the experience on their own but hopefully this is a trend that will continue, both for the Franklin Institute and other institutions interested in peeling back the curtain a little. This may not be the future of behind-the-scenes tours, but it is a future I want to see.