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Museum's 'Section of Mystery' Invites Your Curiosity

Noah Brode
90.5 WESA

Children have encountered a curious pair of miniature doors in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Birds for decades.

“People were constantly turning those doorknobs,” said Becca Shreckengast, the museum’s director of exhibition experience. “They are very attractive doors. They are small, hobbit-sized doors, child-sized doors, so there was already this built-in mystery, like, ‘Why is there this little door?’”

Now, kids (and adults) finally have the chance to go back and see what’s inside Door No. 320.

Spoiler alert! Stop now if you want to experience the mystery for yourself.

Credit Noah Brode / 90.5 WESA
This image of an eastern gray squirrel is one of about 30 'Pepper's ghosts' that are displayed at random along with audio of the animal's call when the door to the Section of Mystery is opened.

As they mosey through the venerable Hall of Birds, passersby will hear the calls of wild animals emanating from behind the door, which dates back to the museum’s founding in the early 1900s. It’s a “rich mahogany,” said Shreckengast, outfitted with a brass knob and hinges, lettered in old-fashioned gold script that now reads “Section of Mystery.”

What will they encounter when they peek inside? Ghosts, of course. Pepper’s ghosts, to be specific – spectral holograms of birds and beasts, hemmed in a small room by a burgundy curtain.

The moving, flickering images were created by museum staff using 3D scanning of the museum’s massive collection of tens of thousands of taxidermy animals, Shreckengast said.

The Section of Mystery has been up and running for two weeks now, but the museum hasn’t advertised it, or even put up a sign. Shreckengast said that’s part of the appeal.

“The scientists at our museum make discoveries. There are things that they don’t know about. There are  mysteries out there in the world,” Shreckengast said. “We want to give our visitors that same sensibility, that if they look in the museum they will discover things.”

She said people come to the museum often expecting an educational experience.

“There’s a whole other side of the museum, which is that it’s an inspirational place for you to get inspired by nature and objects,” Shreckengast said. “It’s a unique experience, a social experience. Our goal is to really capture people’s imagination.”

Credit Noah Brode / 90.5 WESA
Museum staff say children had been trying to get into this miniature door long before it had the words "Section of Mystery" painted on it.

So what was really behind the doors before the Section of Mystery was installed this spring? A large space for maintenance workers to access a catwalk bridging hard-to-reach places in the museum, which is definitely not as magical as the new Section of Mystery.

“I love the Section of Mystery,” Shreckengast added. “I wish I worked there.”