Meowwolf is hard to explain. It’s art! It’s story! It’s a new sort of role-playing! It’s a museum! Most people I know call it a “super cool interactive art thing up in Santa Fe”. I usually go for “interactive art installation where there’s this nonlinear story and you can touch everything”, which is more intriguing but makes less sense.
Meowwolf has been riding on a tidal wave of word of mouth. Any billboards they put up simply say “MEOWWOLF” on a psychedelic background and trust that you’ll make the drive to New Mexico’s capital to figure the thing out for yourself.
When you go to Meowwolf, here’s what happens. You stand in a narrow hallway as a Men In Black looking character on a television screen tells you the rules. You pull open the innocuous door and BAM, you’re in the front yard of an imposing Victorian home at night.
Here’s the first thing that surprised me: there’s a plot. If you graphed the plot it would be an integral, not a curve. There’s so much depth to the characters and the story, and even though it’s not all essential, it’s interesting. There are dozens of mildly relevant books scattered throughout the house, and you can look at all of them. There are huge manuscripts in binders, notes from school pinned to corkboards, letters in the mailbox, children’s journals on desks, brochures stacked in the living room, videos on television, and open computer files. There is no possible way to consume all of the information that’s available.
This means that information is only significant if you decide it is. Sure, some things are more important based on how they’re presented. Anything with video or audio of the family is important. Anything with both is crucial. In a well-written novel, important information is included for you by the author. Extraneous details are usually left out. The plot is laid out for you, not always in a linear fashion, but in one chosen by the author for a specific reason.
Here? You’ve got to climb through refrigerators and flip through booklets and skim pamphlets from a weird religion that’s a little bit like diet, sugar-free Scientology. You have to sort through information, first picking what is interesting enough to investigate, then if it’s important, then how it fits into the plot. If you’re reading a book, maybe you flip back a few pages to check on a detail you’ve forgotten. At Meowwolf, you’re going to have to walk back to a physical location and find that paper or file or business card again. It gives you power over the story and demands interaction that readers of traditional fiction can’t experience.
The story is also told through visual, non-textual means. A critical plot point is told through a quirk of architecture that connects the ceiling of the dining room to the bathroom above it. The dining room table shakes when you get close to it. An easy-to-miss diorama ties up the ends of a subplot. You can’t just read all the text you see, as if someone scattered bits of a book through the exhibit. You have to think and observe more, drawing your own conclusions as you go.
The story component of the exhibit is strong, but the art component is stronger. You could avoid the story if you wanted to. You can’t possibly avoid the art. Everything here is art.
Everything is meant to be touched here. Seriously, everything. There are a few rules: no climbing dangerous things, no going through doors marked “off-limits”, generally be a responsible person. Beyond those, anything’s game. I sat down at the dining room table to read a newspaper. I crawled through a tiny little hole and popped out in someone’s closet. I shuffled papers, looked under the beds, and touched anything that looked interesting. The combination of almost unlimited freedom and incredible attention to detail was powerful.
One thing I struggle with in traditional art museums is how to interpret anything that’s not a literal rendering of a scene. Abstractions, modern art, most textual art and mixed media – I don’t get them. What do they mean? I think, and come away disgruntled because I can’t suss out the meaning in red splotches on an orange background.
Meowwolf does something wonderful about this: it provides context without declaring meaning. The key plot point, that the house leads to weird locations and other dimensions, means the art simply falls into place. One of my favorite parts was the hall that feels like an other-worldly street market. The walls are covered with strange characters and surreal art. I doubt I would have liked any one of those pieces in an art museum. Here, they made sense.
I really, really love museums. I’m trying to make a career in them. But I prefer science museums to art museums. While I appreciate what they do, art museums have always struck the wrong chord with me. I’m not the only one – many art museums face complaints from visitors that they’re too exclusive and uppity, the art doesn’t make sense, the visitors are cut off from the art, there’s nowhere to sit. (Seriously, that last one’s important.)
Meowwolf doesn’t really try to fix these problems. It’s not a museum, so it’s not in a place to do so. Instead, it takes art and presents it to visitors in a totally different way. It invites you to touch the art, sit on the art, lay down on the art, use the art to make music or to experience music in the art. It captures us with a story and makes the most cynical of us forget we’re in an art installation. It makes the art serve us, as opposed to putting the art behind velvet cords and high up on a marble wall and making us observe it reverently from below.
I don’t know if it’s a wholly new invention, but for most visitors, it’s a totally new experience. All of this is to say: go, if you can. And if you can’t, trust us who have. It’s worth all the hype we can heap on it.