A Day at an Intriguing Museum

Museum of IntrigueWe interview Nicole Ginsburg, co-owner of the Museum of Intrigue, to learn about one of the most unique interactive puzzling experiences ever devised.

Museum of Intrigue

Just what is the Museum of Intrigue? Co-owner Nicole Ginsburg has a simple way of explaining it to those who ask her that very question:

“I’ll ask them ‘Have you ever played an escape room?’ Yes? ‘Okay, it’s not that.’ No? ‘Well, it’s kind of like that.’… It’s like Clue meets Scooby Doo meets the Renaissance festival.”

Join us as we take you on a tour of the most intriguing museum you’ll ever find.

Starting from the Farm

Ginsburg’s multifaceted background, which includes performance, marketing, and stage management, came in handy when a friend approached her with the idea of opening a haunted house. At first, Ginsburg was apprehensive; as she herself admits, “I’m afraid of my own shadow.” However, once the concept was explained to her further, she agreed to help, and Frightmare Farms, a haunt based around the bizarre and macabre findings of one Professor Whitmore, was born.

In 2015, an epiphany came to her. “We had these beautiful sets at the haunted house that people only saw eight days out of the year.” Desiring to open them to the public year-round, and with the escape room craze catching fire around this same time, the solution was obvious. That year, Escape the Estate opened to the public, using Frightmare Farms’ existing setting and plot as a base from which to build the game upon.

Museum of Intrigue

Enter Jono Naito, current co-owner and primary story writer for Museum of Intrigue. Jono played Escape the Estate once, and he was hooked – so much so, in fact, that he simply had to join the team behind it. As Ginsburg relates, “He was like, ‘I want to work here,’ and we were like ‘Well, we’re not hiring.’” But Jono wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and as it turned out, it was for the best. Jono was an escape room aficionado, having played hundreds across the country. Hailing from New York City, he just happened to be in Syracuse, getting his masters degree in fiction writing. His passion for Ginsburg’s work was obvious. “Most people are like, ‘I just want a job; minimum wage is fine, and I’ll work every other Saturday.’ This was different, and I knew it from the beginning.”

It wasn’t long after Jono came on board that he devised a little experiment: using the entire Escape the Estate facility as part of one giant, immersive gaming experience. He invited Ginsburg and her business partners to try out his new concept. Within minutes, Ginsburg was hooked. “We started running all the way around our escape rooms, doing different things, playing the same game, and I was like, ‘Oh. My. God,’ and I wanted to play more, immediately. I couldn’t stop myself; I wanted to do more… this is all I have right now, but if we can figure out how to replicate this, this is going to be big.” And so, from a space in the Destiny, USA mall in Syracuse, the Museum of Intrigue was officially born.

Museum of Intrigue

The Machinations of the Museum

Museum of Intrigue

On its surface, the Museum of Intrigue is exactly that: a multi-exhibit museum showcasing interesting and unusual curiosities. However, when guests decide to participate in one of the Museum’s many Stories, which range from 20 to 60 minutes in length, the facility transforms into an entirely different space, and the Museum reveals its true nature, packed to the brim with hidden puzzles and secrets.

Ginsburg uses the term “Intrigue Experience” to describe the concept. Each Story is its own self-contained Intrigue Experience, with its own unique game elements and goals, all utilizing the same space. One key aspect that differentiates a Story from a typical escape room is that the goal is rarely “to escape”. In one, you may be working to identify a murderer among your own ranks; in another, you might be seeking out a vial full of a deadly virus in order to contain it before it can spread and start a pandemic; and in another, you’re utilizing stealth and trickery in an effort to pilfer a rare and priceless artifact from the Museum itself. Another key aspect is the use of actors: while every Story is largely self-guided, most contain at least one actor to immerse participants in the atmosphere, help keep the story progressing, and provide assistance as needed. They all share one core design philosophy, however: immersion is key. As Ginsburg puts it, “The goal is for you to get that satisfaction out of having the experience, spending time making things work, and working together with your friends.”

One unique aspect of the Museum is how different scenes can be repurposed on the fly to fit the unique narratives of each Story. In a Wild West-themed Story, for example, the Great Hall becomes the mayor’s house, the Salem exhibit transforms into a trading post, and a pirate shipwreck morphs into a saloon. All of this can be accomplished without having to touch a single prop or set piece.

One of Ginsburg’s personal favorite Stories is called “I am the Sheriff Now”. The concept is simple: at the beginning, everyone is split off into teams and handed a huge wad of hundred-dollar bills (all fake, of course). The objective is simple: to be the team with the most money when time expires. To help accomplish this task, each player is given a playing card at the start of the game, with each card indicating certain timed events that can change the course of the game. For example, one card may allow you to rob another player at a certain time, while another card may allow you to assume the role of Sheriff (hence the name), which allows you to change the rules of the game temporarily. However, this is the Wild West, which means that, as long as the law doesn’t expressly forbid it, just about anything goes. Ginsburg relates a rather exciting moment she experienced during her first playing:

Museum of Intrigue

“The first time I was robbed, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have no more money left.’ But then I was like, ‘Wait a second: I know how I can get more money.’ There are these satchels that you’re supposed to pay taxes on when you come into each of the exhibits. They never told me I couldn’t steal the money, so I walk up to an actor, and I’m like, ‘Can I?’ and they were like, ‘Listen, darlin’, this is the Wild West. I’m responsible for myself,” and they just walk away, and I’m like, ‘I’ve got a genius idea: I’m gonna go steal all the money!’ However, what I realized was that people had been stealing money for a long time, and there was not a lot of money left in the banks!”

This sense of raw exhilaration is exactly what Ginsburg and co. aim to replicate in each and every experience they create.

The Method Behind the Madness

While inspiration can spring from many sources – from experiences at TransWorld to customer suggestions – overall the design phase for new Stories is highly improvisational. Sometimes the team can spend several long nights trying to devise a solid Story concept, while other times they can nail down the perfect concept in as little as an hour. Overall, it’s about finding an idea that “clicks”, one that allows the Museum to utilize the resources they already have while still creating an experience that’s totally unique from all of the others. From there, they flesh out the details, the characters, and the core game mechanics, tying them all together into a Story that will leave a lasting impression on those who participate.

Another challenge unique to the Museum of Intrigue is the concept of a single, shared game space, atypical to the self-contained nature of most escape room facilities. Surprisingly, little if any external intervention is required to keep every group on its own track without interfering excessively with any other’s. Ginsburg relates the concept to a simple task like grocery shopping: “We’ve all been trained through human operation to be able to function in a space like that… Everyone has their own list and their own goals, and yet each person is still able to function and meet their needs, either by being patient or finding a way to adapt.” This, along with an assembly line-type staffing structure that helps balance reservations with walk-in groups, helps keep every group constantly moving with minimal downtime or interference.

Bringing the Intrigue Experience Outside of the Museum

Museum of Intrigue

In addition to the Stories to be found within the Museum itself, Ginsburg and co. frequently bring the Intrigue Experience to other locations, such as expositions and corporate gatherings. When asked about how they manage to pull off a full-blown Intrigue Experience using much more restricted resources, Ginsburg credits it all to one factor: people. Specifically, Ginsburg stresses giving the people they bring to these events full control over the story that’s being told. If done correctly, it fosters an atmosphere of comfort, safety, and inclusion, which gets participants more engaged and motivated in the experience being presented. As long as those factors can be maintained throughout, the experience can remain just as unforgettable, even in the absence of elaborate sets and costumes.

Parting Advice

To escape room owners looking to add their own unique flair to their businesses, Ginsburg offers up this sage advice:
“Everybody gets up and dresses themselves in the morning. You make choices when you do that. It’s just like when you brand your business, you make choices; ‘These are the colors I’m attracted to, this is this, this is that.’ If I were to walk in as a total stranger and say, ‘You shouldn’t wear that, you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that,” how comfortable would you feel? The only person who can run your business and knows how your business should be run is you. It’s your ideas, it’s your comfort, you’re the one who has to run it, so make your business as unique as you are.”

And with that, you can color us totally intrigued.

For more information about the Museum of Intrigue, including location, prices, and the different Stories currently available, visit the Museum of Intrigue website at www.museumofintrigue.com.

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