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No escaping this event's appeal: Museum's first escape room draws rave reviews


Courtesy of Los Altos History Museum
Participants in the Los Altos History Museum’s inaugural escape room Dec. 6 pore over clues.

The Los Altos History Museum’s first escape room won’t be its last.

Los Altos History Museum exhibition curator Amy Ellison said she “could not have been more pleased” with how the Dec. 6 event went.

Held next to the museum at the J. Gilbert Smith House, two groups of participants each spent an hour solving puzzles – receiving hints from costumed volunteers dressed as members of the Smith family – and learning about local history in the escape room.

The Smith House is the former home of orchardist and builder J. Gilbert Smith and his wife, Margaret Hill Smith, who lived there from 1901 to 1973.

Furnished with 1930s artifacts, the home is usually only open to the public through tours with museum docents. However, when Ellison attended a conference in Philadelphia last fall, she was inspired by other local museums to host something different at the Smith House.

“Several small museums reported having great success with escape rooms and found that attendees enjoyed being able to interact with historic spaces in new ways,” Ellison said. “Our goal was to provide a more interactive experience where visitors got to ‘make themselves at home’ a bit more than they can on a guided tour. Visitors often miss many of the amazing historic objects that are on display, but in an escape room, artifacts you’ve never noticed before might be a clue.”

With guidance from Ellison, Jocelyn Lambert – a Foothill Humanities Mellon Scholar intern working with the museum – created the escape room. After drafting several storylines, Lambert developed a game focused on the Smith family’s lives during the Great Depression.

Lambert conducted research on the Smith family and Los Altos history and wrote clues – but with a new twist: The escape room featured characters portraying the Smith family, who played an active role in the event.

“Smith family members gave sequential clues to our players, while also divulging some fun facts about their lives in Los Altos,” Lambert said. “Each Smith character inhabited a different room in the house and guided our players toward different pieces of a larger puzzle.”

The Smith family members were played by several teen docent volunteers, who usually give tours at the History Museum. According to Lambert, they elevated the experience of the escape room.

“Their dedication really breathed life into this project, and we couldn’t have done it without them,” she said.

After planning the escape room, the museum advertised the event through its newsletter and website – it sold out in a week, even developing a short waiting list, Lambert said. Participants ranged from pre-teens to adults.

“Each group solved the puzzles within about 45 minutes, although both groups received a little help from our resident Smith family ghosts,” Lambert said.

Ellison added: “We loved how excited attendees were to meet the Smiths and to find clues in unlikely places. They had a great time exploring the house. … We definitely hope to host another escape room soon, so stay tuned.”

For more information on the J. Gilbert Smith House, visit losaltoshistory.org.

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