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Curious minds

What's behind Carnegie Museum's magical 'Mystery' door?

Display offers education framed by interactive effects

Story by ALEXANDER POPICHAK • Photography/Videography by SYDNEY BAUER

Tucked away on the third floor of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland, amid the bird collection, are doors that have long aroused curiosity among visitors. Most strange about these otherwise nondescript wood doors is their size — half the height of a normal door measuring roughly 4 feet wide and 5 feet tall.

Are there leprechauns in Pittsburgh?

Visitors can now discover for themselves what lies behind the door in the first interactive exhibit from the Carnegie Museums' Innovation Studio. Emblazoned with the label "Section of Mystery," the door invites visitors to open it up and discover what's inside.

Taking a look for ourselves, we discovered some of the museum's treasures.

"The idea to do something with the door came from visitors' curiosity, because visitors were knocking and pulling on the door for years," says Caroline Record, a creation technologist with the Innovation Studio.

Record led the project that created the Section of Mystery. She says the team wanted to expand how they displayed collections, but in a way that didn't "look like a museum exhibit." Even as they were installing the exhibit and before the words were painted on the door, she says people were pulling on it, trying to find out what was inside.

So, what's behind the door?

When visitors open it up, a red velvet curtain frames a 3-D projected image of an animal, along with some information and sounds of the animal — any one of 30 that live in the section. Close the door and open it again, and a different animal can be seen.

Sadly, you can't go inside, there's a Plexiglas barrier just inside the door.

Since it debuted June 3, Record says the Section of Mystery door been opened and closed more than 6,900 times. (And that's as of early July!)

She says the project took a total of six months and involved over 1,000 lines of code and several workshops at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in 3-D scanning. All the carpentry, projection and coding results in a seamless interactive experience.

According to the project's page on the Innovation Studio website, the animals that live behind the door were chosen because they all make a sound, are not on active display, were large enough to be accurately 3-D scanned and were stored in a removable case.

The Studio's handiwork has indeed been met with a warm reception by some of the museum's youngest visitors.

A recent summer camp contingent stopped and crowded the door's opening. When they heard the exhibit was different every time the door was opened, one young boy exclaimed "close it and open it until we find a dodo!"

According to Kathleen Bodenlos, director of marketing at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, what originally was behind the door was significantly less exciting than the birds, mammals and various creatures who now inhabit the space.

"What was here before was truly like a storage space — like an attic," Bodenlos says.

Now, it's a cool mystery.

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