Before entering the Institute for American Indian Studies’ new Wigwam Escape Room, we’re given a few moments in a room with exhibits on pre-European-contact Native Americans in Connecticut. There is information about techniques they used to hunt, build fires and prepare medicines. More than just intriguing history, these exhibits offer vital clues on how to succeed at many of the challenges that await in the escape room. Opened in December at the Washington museum, the room was designed with historical accuracy and authenticity very much in mind.
Like other escape rooms, the experience begins with a challenge. In this case, you’re in the year 1518 in a Native American village in the woodlands of Connecticut. You’ve received word that an illness is affecting the neighboring village of Metachiwon (Lover’s Leap in New Milford) and you need to gather and prepare supplies for the 7-mile journey. As with other escape rooms, to get these supplies it is necessary to solve a series of problems and overcome challenges that require teamwork, as well as a good deal of trial and error. However, unlike other escape rooms, the setup of the room is decidedly non-industrial. There are no locks, keys or steampunk contraptions of any kind. Perhaps most different of all: there is no clock on the wall counting down the time you have to complete the mission.
Museum educator Griffin Kalin designed the room and serves as its creative director. He said figuring out how to give users a subtle sense of time without including an anachronistic clock was a “fun little puzzle to crack.”
Ultimately they decided, “We’re not going to use language, and we’re not going to use devices, but we’re going to allow people to see how much time they have left visually without that,” Kalin says. While experiencing the room, visitors gauge time by light, as people would have done in the 1500s (cellphones, watches and other modern devices are stored in a locked box as visitors experience the room). When the game begins, it is dawn and the room is semi-dark; as the “day” progresses, it gets lighter and lighter. As it dims again and you hear owls calling in the woods, you know the day is coming to an end, and time is running out.
Lauren Bennett, the museum’s program coordinator, says a lot of the museum’s visitors are children and senior citizens. They designed the escape room, in part, in the hopes of getting more people in between those age groups and to engage people with “a different type of learning style, that hands-on learning style. So you’re actually engaging with the subject matter, rather than just looking at it behind a piece of glass.”
The room features many tactile elements, from a wigwam made in a traditional style with real bark, to a spear you use to hunt a deer. There are also beautiful murals on the wall painted by Jesse Stephens.
Bennett says at its heart the room is story-driven. “It’s interesting watching adults and kids go through together because kids really pick up on that narrative, and adults are really preoccupied with, this puzzle has a magnet in it, how do I get this to flip a switch.”
The Institute for American Indian Studies
38 Curtis Road, Washington
Group reservations available Friday through Sunday. Recommended group size: 3-7 people. The room operates by appointment only. Tickets are $25 ($20 for members or students). Recommended for children 12 and up, though younger children are allowed if accompanied by an adult. It lasts 90 minutes including a 15-minute introduction, 60 minutes in the room, and 15-minute popcorn snack afterward. Parts of the room are not accessible to people with wheelchairs or walkers.