Chicago’s WNDR Museum Oversells on Wonder, Thrives in Fun

Courtesy of Carol Fox and Associates Public RelationsIn the "Try to Get Higher" exhibit, patrons can mix sounds to create a musical experience.

Attending a museum in the Instagram age isn’t just attending a museum. It’s donning a cute outfit. It’s posing candidly in front of a Van Gogh. It’s looking engaged in the art to boost your Instagram engagement.

With Chicago’s WNDR Museum, pretense is thrown out the window. The museum, which began as a pop-up in 2018, is home to more than 20 immersive installations. The sensory museum engages audiences through a cornucopia of pieces that allow the museum-goer to be the art.

In some senses, it’s a magical, transcendent experience. In others, it’s an Instagram backdrop.

“We pride ourselves in creating really compelling pieces that kind of evoke a variety of emotions,” Ryan Kunkel, president of WNDR Global, told The Phoenix at a college press night. “But there’s no doubt that it provides a compelling background for all your social feeds.”

Alec Karam | The Phoenix The Phoenix attended the WNDR Museum’s college press night Oct. 7.

The WNDR Museum moves a mile a minute, allowing patrons to peruse the entire museum in 45 minutes with ease. 

WNDR is a series of oohs and ahhs. Exhibits capture the eye for a minute or two, but it’s all fleeting. Museum-goers are unlikely to leave feeling changed by the art or find the signs saying, “Today was a good day” and “WNDR = Possibility” especially thought provoking.

Beyond the veneer of glam is an aura of emptiness. The museum has its appeal, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting some content for the ‘Gram, but museum-goers should adjust their expectations away from an avant-garde experience and view WNDR as a play area. 

Kunkel, a 38-year-old Chicago suburb native, noted COVID-19 forced them to shift the WNDR experience. The museum now staggers entrances in 15-minute intervals to avoid crowding. In the socially distanced age, most exhibits function touchless. 

As an immersive museum, this necessary hurdle provides a challenge for captivating audiences. The “LANDS” exhibit is described as a “touchless interactive sound and light installation” utilizing sensory motion and damaged CDs to create “individual disco dance rooms,” according to the museum’s website.

Instead, it sounds like a series of broken records. Which it is. 

Courtesy of Carol Fox and Associates Public Relations The WNDR Museum’s LED Light Floor utilizes motion sensors to allow participants to create their own show.

The high volume of installations is a double-edged sword due to their hit-or-miss nature. While “LANDS” flops on landing, museum-goers can hop into the alluring “WNDR Light Floor” just a minute later.

The floor utilizes motion-sensored LED panels to create an animated room entrapped with mirrors. The wildly fun room is a grown-up playground. 

That’s where WNDR shines — as an exuberant, vapid escape from the real world. With the light floor and the “Try to Get Higher” exhibit — easily the museum’s magnum opus — WNDR is unabashedly enjoyable.

The “Try to Get Higher” installation features 16 buttons to create a musical experience.

“Try to Get Higher” allows participants to hit lit-up buttons to create an amalgamation of musical notes. It’s an expensive, IMAX-experience-esque version of a child’s sound machine — and it’s a total blast.

The WNDR Museum is undoubtedly fun. It’s an interactive photo booth at its core — including an actual photo booth in the gift shop. Yet, the museum branding brings lofty comparisons in a city as historic as Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago is a rich, storied history of generations of art — and it’s free for Loyola students. WNDR is more of a tourist trap, luring in influencers and the like through surface introspection for $30 a pop ($36 on peak weekend hours).

Alec Karam | The Phoenix The WNDR Museum is “a place of possibility,” President of WNDR Global Ryan Kunkel said.

If the Art Institute is HBO, WNDR is The CW. They both have their place, and they both hit the spot at different times. 

Kunkel said WNDR’s unique approach to the museum experience is a pro, not a con.

“The traditional museum is about history and we view ourselves as a place of possibility,” he said.

The WNDR Museum is open Monday to Thursday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., Friday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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