"Do you know anything about the Wndr museum?" I ask my nephews as we're driving to Chicago's West Loop for our reserved 4:30 p.m. time slot.
"Nope. I've never even heard of it, to be honest," says Louie, who is 10.
Simon, 11, says he knows a girl who had been thinking about having a birthday party there but decided not to because it's expensive (at $32 a person, plus tax, she's not wrong).
"Excellent. You're blank slates!" I tell them.
And that's exactly why I was bringing them along to Chicago's Wndr museum, the city's latest example of a nationwide trend: public spaces that are highly immersive, experiential and, above all, Instagrammable. I wanted to hear the reactions of two smart, open-minded but opinionated kids who don't have social media accounts or carry phones with them. I also wanted them to bring their sense of, yes, wonder along so that I, their somewhat cynical and slightly skeptical aunt — who has a more traditional understanding and expectation of what a museum is, pre-Instagram — could take a peek through their eyes.
The museum, which was founded by tech entrepreneur Brad Keywell, opened as a pop-up a little over a year ago and, following a slew of strong ticket sales, morphed into a permanent fixture. Housed in the first floor of a three-story red brick commercial building, it's open Wednesday through Sunday, and visitors can either buy tickets for a particular time slot online or pay by credit card at the front door. It's in its third installation, or "chapter," since opening.
The latest chapter, which opened in the fall, is "A Hero's Journey Through Wndr," which was inspired by the book "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," by mythologist Joseph Campbell. Keywell, the Wndr museum's founder and CEO, is a Campbell fan.
Signs along the way prompt questions about the visitor's own journey, saying things like "Through trials and tribulations, a hero is shaped by the challenges they've faced. A key strength in transformation resides with identifying a motivator. Is it fear? Is it hope? What will shape your journey?" As I pause to read the words, the boys rush by, far more interested in the interactive art around us.
Going through the museum is a little like winding through a fun house, or visiting Willy Wonka's factory. There are black walls that turn bright with light as we paint them; floors that turn Technicolor as we dance over them; wires that hum with sounds we can only hear when holding a certain kind of listening device; an enclave where one nephew appears giant and the other tiny; a space where their images multiply on a screen, and their clones spin in a circle; and the most famous room — one that many come here specifically to see — "Let's Survive Forever," an "Infinity Mirror Room" by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. There, amid graceful floating balls and mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors, we're allotted just one minute, so we take it all in, gazing at one another and at our multiplying reflections, wishing we could stay just a little longer to find a different angle, a new perspective.
In all, we spend about an hour exploring what Wndr has to offer — the art, the science, the technology. Louie tells me he loves how different art installations felt like they were his, because the works responded in such a personalized way that no one else would experience them exactly the same. Plus, he perceived much of the art to be mysterious interactive puzzles, and he liked trying to figure out what made them tick. "It made your mind think, 'How does this stuff work?' And I wondered, 'What would happen if I did this?' And it was like, 'Oooooh,'" he says.
Simon also liked trying to deconstruct what he saw and understand what was happening below the surface: How was he able to hear things in those wires? Where did that pneumatic tube shoot the piece of paper he'd just stuck inside it? And the fact that every time he turned a corner, a surprise awaited.
Me, the cynical one? I loved watching the kids throw themselves into it all, of course. And I was surprised to find that, despite the museum's obvious Instagrammability, at the time we were there, people were fully engaged in the exhibits (I was the one taking all the photos). As much as I liked the work by all the artists, I also appreciated the subtle touches around the museum — the things that are decidedly analog. In one room, there's a sign on a brick that says "Brick for sale" and has a dangling price tag. Nearby, another sign simply says "Sign not in use." There are miniature art displays, too, like scenes in the lockers where you can store your belongings; mini-beach displays on the water fountains; and I won't spoil it, but don't skip a visit to the bathroom.
After we leave the exhibit, we head to the nearest ice cream shop to have ice cream for dinner — it seems like a renegade enough thing to do — and I ask the boys for their thoughts on museums. Whether Wndr, and other "experiences" like it, fit the museum category has been known to spark arguments among fans and critics of this new, immersive, social-media-friendly category.
"What we just went to," I ask, "was it a museum?"
Louie agrees wholeheartedly. "I think a museum can be anything. From the Museum of Contemporary Art to this — it's just looking at stuff and interacting with it."
Simon doesn't see it as a museum. To him, I think, it was something better. "I think of it more as a playground," he says. "A playground for the mind."