Experience exhibitions have become all the rage as of late. Ranging from expensive photo ops to indulgent nostalgia trips, experiences have popped up across the globe and promise a blend of saccharine fun, low stakes education, and, critically, spice for the Instagram feed.
But which Chicago experience is the most experience-y? After visits and extensive research, I present a definitive scoring of exhibitions based on how likely they are to induce feeling. Not included: the Monet and Van Gogh immersive shows, both of which we’ve covered in the past, and not because they scored negative points.
THE OFFICE EXPERIENCE
In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, codifying the 40-hour workweek we all know today into law. The benefits were innumerable, opening up free time for millions of Americans. So, imagine taking this hard-earned leisure time to go back to the office.
Okay, but not just any office — “The Office” from Scranton, PA, as immortalized in the show of the same name. In a way FDR would never have imagined, you can now pay money to go to work — or pretend to not do work, since the only “Office” characters who seemed to ever do their jobs were Toby and Pam. Nothing conveys this more than the opportunity to buy a staff ID ($15, on top of the $55 admission) and watch an introductory employee video upon arrival. For the die-hard, this experience will cover every base short of being verbally debased by Michael Scott himself. You can witness a chillingly solid sculpture of Kevin’s chili, peep into the private drawers of Dunder Mifflin’s employees, and be reminded of how you’ll inevitably die alone as you’re bombarded with an entire section dedicated to Jim and Pam’s romance. The true coup de grace comes at the end — or beginning, if you skip to it. In the gift shop, you can buy your own Dunder Mifflin printing paper ($10), so you can … print?
Score: 6.9 feelings out of 10
THE DR. SEUSS EXPERIENCE
I said what I said and I meant what I meant, this experience here is hard to lament! “The Dr. Seuss Experience” will not steal your Christmas or confront you with a fascist turtle, but it will allow you to … do things? “The Seuss Experience,” catered to young children, offers actual activities as opposed to the shuffle from photo station to photo station. While “The Office Experience” only teases the possibility of, forgive me, “hardcore parkour,” “Seuss” lets visitors run and play in activity rooms. Adults can enjoy games and children can zoom through pink forests while possibly experiencing long-lasting trauma after encountering any number of off-putting Seuss characters. It’s all fun and games until a costumed Onceler mumbles on about cutting down the Amazon rainforest and “stopping the steal.”
Score: 7.5 feelings out of 10
THE MEDIEVAL TORTURE MUSEUM
Don’t be put off by the name — this museum goes to great pains to provide an engaging experience. The Medieval Torture Museum bills itself as the “largest interactive historical museum in the U.S.,” which it accomplishes through an extensive collection of torture contraptions, object arrangements, and scenic displays. The latter features dressed-up mannequins positioned with said torture contraptions. In one instance, a vise crushes a mannequin’s waxy head, while not far away, mannequin rats consume another victim. It’s brutal, a bit cheesy, and … endearing? The scope of the museum and information is vast, and the level of care put into it shows. For all the suffering, it’s markedly less painful than hearing Steve Carrell make “that’s what she said” jokes in 2021.
Credit where credit is due, the torture museum makes a respectable effort to push the boundaries of what an experience exhibition can be by maintaining a clear creative vision. Beneath the blood, guts, excrement, and suffering of it all is a real, beating heart.
Score: 8 feelings out of 10
THE WNDR MUSEUM
Despite the name, the WNDR Museum is not quite a museum — they don’t exhibit art or objects in any conventional sense. Visitors are guided on a one-way journey taking them through the darkened hallways of a nondescript Greektown warehouse. Visitors encounter optical illusions including a “shrinking” room as well as interactive stations (think glorified Snapchat filters) marketed as art. Signs will regularly prompt you to whip out your phones to scan QR codes or to take photos at predetermined selfie stations. Worse, they smack you with trendy aphorisms like “be present” as contemporary pop music blares in the background, as if your screen-weary senses were not already vaporized from Twitter and Zoom meetings.
Just short of hiring your own photographer, it’s a particularly expensive way of trying to acquire a photo for your feed. For those looking to encounter art, you’ll be left wndring why you came. But if you want to feel things (good, bad, outright nauseous), you’ve wndred into the right joint.
Score: 5 feelings out of 10
Rumor has it the real reason Banksy remains anonymous is so that his face can never be associated with this show. An “unauthorized” exhibition, “The Art of Banksy” pulls together Banksy works from private collections without any official involvement from the artist. It has yet to become clear if this is just another grift from Banksy himself — never forget the shredding performance portrait — but if it were, I would be impressed. Nothing says “renegade street artist” like a $55 walkthrough curated by a group called Starvox Entertainment. The works are real, but so is eyeing graffiti while riding the brown line, and about $50 cheaper too.
Score: 5.5 feelings out of 10
If you wish to hide from the outside world and seek the comforting plasticine confines of a Glossier store, then I have found the answer to all your prayers! HideSeek is the more transparent big brother to the WNDR Museum; it makes no claims to function as a collection, instead letting you vibe in its 15 installation rooms as you see fit. While I would pause at the thought of dropping an edible or tab before the Seuss experience, HideSeek inspires no hesitation — the presentation is so innocent, its experience so low stakes, that it practically demands you take advantage of its lowkey energy. Stations include a room with a cereal box wallpaper; walls of slinkies (ASMR with extra steps if you ask me); and even a bus with a designated “cool kids” section as if they wouldn’t be driving themselves to school in their Tesla Model Ts and blowing mint Juul vapor in your face instead.
Score: 6.5 feelings out of 10
HONORABLE MENTION: THE BOB ROSS EXPERIENCE
Amidst the pretty little trees of Muncie, IN, is the “Bob Ross Experience.” This experience does not shepherd you into a nondescript warehouse nor batter the senses through a barrage of color and sound. Instead, the “Bob Ross Experience” takes you to the heart of the operation — the actual studio where Ross, full name Robert Norman Ross, painted and filmed for the now-iconic show, “The Joy of Painting.” For a mercifully low $15, you can see Ross’s studio, original works, and artifacts from his practice and television show.
The “Bob Ross Experience” receives an honorable mention, partially because it is far outside of Chicago, but more so because the experience is so wholesome and endearing compared to medieval torture, the exhumed corpse of Van Gogh, and the deforestation consternation of Dunder Mifflin, that it deserves its own spot elsewhere.
Score: 9.5 pretty little trees out of 10
THE CTA EXPERIENCE
Possibly Chicago’s most accessible experience, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) will never fail to elicit emotions. From the highbrow brilliant (finding stray copies of “The New Yorker”) to the lowbrow despicable (your train abandons you as you walk onto the platform; anti-maskers; giant rats), the CTA contains multitudes. Unlike most experiences, the CTA taps into the unpredictability of life itself, as opposed to escaping from it. Trains and buses channel a chaotic but engaging energy into each and every commute, providing an intimate theatre for the street-level drama of Chicago.
Score: 10 feelings out of 10. You’ll never feel the same again.
Pablo Nukaya-Petralia (MAAH 2023) is the art editor at F Newsmagazine. He demands a sequel to “Get Back.”