Lincoln museum teaches history through escape room game

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Kevin Loope and his family only had a little bit of time left to change history, but they were stumped.

They had spent the past hour in a small room solving puzzles and riddles, searching every nook and cranny for clues and running headfirst into dead ends. The trail was cold and the last black grains of sand in an hourglass dropped to the bottom. Time was up and the history books remained unchanged.

But they still had fun, and even learned a thing or two. That’s the goal of the “Dr. Barbour and the Devil’s Corkscrew” escape room, the newest attraction at Morrill Hall.

The escape room is for older crowds ages 14 and older and is part of the museum’s effort to offer more adult programs and bring in college students, according to museum volunteer coordinator Sarah Feit. She told the Lincoln Journal Star that half of the escape room groups are University of Nebraska-Lincoln students.

“I knew that I wanted to be a part of it in terms of thinking up fun programs that people in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s and above would want to come to the museum to do,” she said.

The scenario is set in a professor’s study during the end of the 1890s. Groups are tasked with finding the lost notebook of Dr. Erwin Barbour, one of the first directors of the museum. Barbour is famous for being the first director to make a serious effort at building up the university’s then-minuscule fossil collection.

He also likely discovered what would become the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in western Nebraska, according to the escape room’s designer and museum preparator Rob Skolnick. But the credit for the discovery goes to the paleontologists at the Carnegie Museum, who were the first to excavate and recover some of the fossils there.

“They show up and they can’t believe their eyes. There are thousands of these bones and it’s one of the richest bone beds in the world. It has become one of the most significant paleontology sites in North America,” Skolnick said. “So what has happened here is Barbour missed his chance to get credit for the discovery of this amazing bone bed.”

But, according to Skolnick, the missing notebook contains the proof needed to redeem Barbour. All it takes is a group to find it.

“You get to step back in history and try to rewrite it a little bit,” he said.

The room is an imagined recreation of Barbour’s study. A typewriter sits on one of the four water-stained desks, fossils fill antique barrister shelves and photographs from Barbour’s digs hang from the walls.

With the exception of a few contemporary puzzles, all the fossils and props come from Morrill Hall’s collection. And while Barbour’s notebook prop itself isn’t an authentic artifact, each of its pages is photocopied from the late museum director’s handwritten field book.

“It’s not a fantasy that’s made up like you’re trying to save the world from a mad scientist,” Skolnick said. “This is an absolute piece of history and this stuff happened. Everything you see is real.”

Each of the room’s clues can be solved out of order and participants will still be able to reach the end regardless of what direction they take. While all roads lead to the same conclusion, the experience has some built in roadblocks, courtesy of Skolnick’s design.

“There are a lot of dead ends,” Skolnick said. “My twisted sense of humor is built in.”

The clues target every kind of puzzle solver. Aside from challenging number puzzles, some clues appeal to more detail-oriented people looking to search every dark crevice and look under every rock to see what’s there, according to Feit.

“We have a variety of different clues to try to get you to the end goal. We can play to a lot of peoples’ puzzling strengths,” she said.

With an uncompromising time constraint and increasingly difficult puzzles, the odds of a group completing an escape room are not in the guests’ favor. Only about 38 to 40 percent of escape room sessions end successfully, according to Skolnick, and his isn’t any different.

“It’ll test all levels and that’s pretty much how I designed it,” he said. “Although through the evaluation process, we’ve had very few negative comments, it’s almost all 100 percent positive.”

Loope, a Georgia biologist who came to the museum to spend time with family, said it was the perfect group activity for a museum.

“It’s nice to have something like that there that wasn’t just walking around the museum and looking at exhibits,” he said.

Loope attested to the difficulty of the room, having not successfully completed it himself.

“It’s pretty fast and furious at first, but we hit a wall at the end,” he said. “People can get distracted and it’s tough to coordinate when it gets like that, but it’s still fun and exciting.”

The escape room is open to the public Thursday through Sunday and groups must book 24 hours ahead of time. It will run through the summer before the museum decides whether to keep it, according to Skolnick. He said he can see activities like escape rooms becoming more commonplace in museums and has shown off the room to faculty members from other museums.

“Most of them work for museums and universities and they were all excited, so I wouldn’t be surprised if other places will do it,” he said.

Offering an escape room not only gets people in the door to check out the museum, but it also offers them a chance to take a break from looking at exhibits and enjoy themselves, Skolnick said.

“It was fun for me to do as a project. It was a lot of work, it took a lot of my own time but it was well worth it,” he said. “They are not even going to realize they’re learning a little natural history, but it’s all part of it. You’re really surrounded by it. It’s authentic, and it’s fun.”


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star,