The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry

The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry is a sort of narrative wunderkammer of an alternate reality game, a “cabinet of curiosities” combining a rich and oftentimes mysteriously fragmented historical tapestry with what Rob MacDougall has called “playful historical thinking.” By incorporating counterfactuals and re-imagining the past, AGOG is designed to lead players into a newly enfranchised relationship with history, teach them STEM and information literacy skills, and help them discover the secret stories outside most history books.

The old U.S. Patent Office

The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry‘s mythology is grounded in the history of the U. S. Patent  Office, which used to inhabit the building where today the Smithsonian American Art Museum resides.  During the time the building functioned as a “Temple of Invention” (1836 to 1932), thousands of patents were submitted and thousands of miniature models of the designs were put on display. The building also variously served as a place of employment, curiosity, ministry, and sociability for a number of historically significant figures and personalities, including Abraham  Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Clara Barton.  The stately halls and galleries of the Patent Office were transformed into makeshift barracks and hospital rooms during the Civil War, the grim realities of which were temporarily overshadowed by the repurposing of the space for  Lincoln’s second inaugural ball in 1865.

The Patent Office became a hospital during the Civil War.

In 1877, “the noblest of Washington  buildings” was dealt a severe blow when a fire broke out and destroyed the collection of 12,000 rejected patent models in the  attic and damaged another 114,000. It is the fire that provided the designers of The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry with the means to traverse fiction and reality, functioning as a joint in  which we could embed a “rabbit-hole” that would draw players into the game: a mysterious document allegedly dating back to the fire of 1877, which cryptically refers to a “Cabinet of Curiosities.” Out of the notional fragments of patent models and other mechanical remains that ostensibly survived the conflagration, first-run players–mostly librarians and scholars–were asked to help reconstruct and curate the Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry by imagining what sorts of wondrous, retro-futuristic inventions might have populated it, then creating those artifacts using found objects (in the spirit of assemblage art) that were first  identified in a database of historic patents.

A mysterious document...

In the first full-fledged season of the game, middle school players raced against time to gain cryptographic, archival, cartographic, and inventor skills that would help them prevent a dangerous rift in the course of history. With each season of the ARG based around a different intriguing lost invention from the Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry, there’s always a new story to uncover, a new rabbit hole to fall down–and it’s never too late to change the past!

Read more about Season 1 of the ARG, the research study, or the people behind the ARG.

If you’d like to be contacted when the next season of the ARG (aimed at individuals college-age and above) begins, please fill out the form in the right sidebar.