Inside Downtown Seattle's New Museum
The WNDR Museum definitely brings the wonder 😮
April 3, 2023
📸: “You Can Do Most Anything” by Andy Arkley | Photo by Adam Kubota
The WNDR Museum is a high-tech playhouse. Originally from Chicago, the museum filled with immersive art has expanded to multiple US cities, and organizers say their new Seattle location is permanent. Their website describes it as “an ever-evolving immersive art and technology experience that is designed to ignite the curiosity that exists within and around each of us.” On the night I attended, a patron more prosaically described it as “an art museum designed by a millennial.” The reality lies somewhere in between.
It’s right to call it an experience because this isn’t a museum where you sit back and ruminate on what you observe. You participate. In some instances, it’s your participation that generates new sights and sounds—new art. Positivity abounds, with signs bearing comforting phrases like “The future is yours to create” and “We are all artists.”
Above all, it’s playful. There are games to figure out and questions designed to tickle your brain (like; is digital art really “art”?). There are lighting setups that change as you move your body, poetry recitals, and a tribute to Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and her iconic pumpkin artwork (“The pumpkin is to Yayoi Kusama what the Campbell’s Soup can is to Warhol”). To get the most out of this immersive museum you have to dive in with no restraint.
Here’s a selection of favorite installations—and don’t forget to have your fortune told by the Oracle.
The Wisdom Project 🦉
Before you enter the gallery’s main space, you’re confronted with a puzzler: a wall with the simple question, “What do you know for sure?” It’s typical of the kind of opened-ended queries you’ll find throughout the museum. You’re invited to immediately put your thoughts to paper (notepads and pens thoughtfully provided) and hang them on the wall. On my visit, the postings ranged from greeting card aphorisms (“Somebody cares about you”), advice that’s practical, if a little boring (“Comfy clothes every single time”), to satiric optimism (“TikTok will win!”). The best posting was how the statement “I love my husband Caleb,” prompted those on adjacent panels to immediately latch onto Caleb as well (“I am Caleb’s other lover,” “Caleb let me borrow his car once”). When our photographer visited, he noticed a drawing of a cartoon rabbit wearing underwear with “She’s so sexy” written next to it. Something for everyone!
WNDR Light Floor 💡
This is the passage that leads you into the main gallery. It’s designed to completely disorient you, as you step from the brightly lit ticket counter/café area into a dark hallway lined with mirrors and an electric river of blue across the floor. Here’s where you discover that your mere presence alters the shape of things—as you step onto the floor, the lights will change under your foot. You’re just meant to use the passage to get to the rest of the gallery, but if it’s not crowded, it’s worth spending some time walking back and forth in this trippy space that challenges your equilibrium.
LOOK DOWN ❗
You never know what will happen when you step on the large black footprints you see on the floors throughout the gallery, so don’t miss an opportunity to find out. Maybe you’ll get a message of positive reinforcement. Maybe you’ll make an iconic artwork disintegrate. You won’t know unless you take a chance.
“You Can Do Most Anything” by Andy Arkley 🕹️
Local artist Andy Arkley’s installation first looks like a kid’s toy box of large, primary-colored objects has been thrown up against the wall—multi-colored half circles, snake-like squiggles, rounded flower shapes, with matching colored lights. But that’s only part of it. Directly in front of the display, you’ll find a keypad of round buttons on a stand, and when you press them, you get a different repetitive sound (drum beat, keyboard flourish). Or maybe a light comes on. Because you can press more than one button at a time, you can easily get a rhythm going, functioning as an impromptu DJ. The artist statement says Arkley “strives to make art that fosters positivity and elation.” Mission accomplished.
TOUCH IT ✋
There are lots of things to touch in the gallery: the keypad for “You Can Do Most Anything,” the “Untitled by You,” the Oracle’s fortune dispenser. Bring hand sanitizer.
“Untitled by You” by Wolfbear 🤖
Here’s where you get to go one-on-one with AI. The premise is deceptively simple: Think of a name you’d give to an imaginary piece of artwork and type it in at the kiosk. The computer will think about it and then generate four different visual artworks based on the specific phrase, displaying them on the wall. (Even so, the phrase “A factory as painted by Van Gogh” featured his iconic “Starry Night” in all four artworks.) But most amusing was the notice warning you to “engage” with the installation at your own risk: “The text to image model used here (Stable Diffusion) does not understand language in the same way humans do. Results may not be suitable for people of all ages.”
TRANSIT TIP 🚌
There’s minimal parking around the museum and plenty of construction going on everywhere, so take public transportation or a cab/rideshare.
“INSIDEOUT” by Studio Leigh Sachwitz (art installation, creative direction) and flora&faunavisuals (video design and production)
Your WNDR experience ends with a bang—literally. You’re placed inside the sights and sounds of a fierce thunder and lightning storm, or, as one patron observed, “What it would be like in the downtown transit tunnel during an earthquake.” Sachwitz drew on his memories of Glasgow thunderstorms, expertly recreating the transformation of the dulcet sounds of a summer’s day giving way to the gentle plunk of the first raindrops (with lighting effects to match), and nature’s fury is finally unleashed with appropriate angry rumblings and bursts of light. For the most intense experience, go inside the playhouse-type structure in the middle of the room, and marvel at the feeling of being at the center of a storm without getting wet.
Gillian G. Gaar is a Seattle-based journalist and the author of several books, including She’s A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll and Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana. Twitter: @GillianGaar.