Deep inside the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a smartphone camera, held up to an abstract painting, reveals a hidden message: "What does Ludwig see?" The answer to that riddle lies in another artwork, then another.

The museum is giving visitors a new way to explore its vast collections — Riddle Mia This, a free mobile app with a dozen puzzles that transform the galleries into a giant escape room. Across the country, museums are using games and apps to encourage visitors to engage with their artworks and artifacts.

"It's one of the many ways we are embracing the idea of meeting our customers where they are, welcoming them to the space, helping them find surprise and delight," said Douglas Hegley, Mia's chief digital officer.

Since its launch in September, about 2,500 people have downloaded the app, which was created by two University of Minnesota staffers: technology architect Colin McFadden and digital preservation specialist Samantha Thi Porter. Nearly half of the downloaders completed the game, which takes about an hour.

Five years back, museums were trotting out slick new apps, trying to draw younger audiences. But these days, museums are being smarter about how they deploy such technology, drawing it closer to their collections and people to one another.

Audiences want technology — especially at museums, a 2017 Culture Track report shows. About 81 percent of those surveyed said they'd welcome digital experiences at art and design museums, according to the national report by New York marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen, which studies cultural consumers' attitudes and attendance. At the same time, those surveyed also spoke about how analog activities can feel more authentic and less complicated.

"When exploring a new digital strategy or initiative, organizations should start by asking questions such as: Is this enriching, or distracting?" the report argues. "Does this simplify the experience, or make it more complicated? Most importantly, does this feel authentic to who we are and how our audiences engage with us?"

Free and flexible

The puzzle begins at the museum's entrance: Download the app. Get a badge. There are no further instructions.

"It's up to you to figure out what to do with that," McFadden said. "You're standing at the welcome desk, holding a card and holding your phone."

After a moment, visitors put two and two together, using the app's camera to photograph the badge's bar code. Suddenly, they have a message supposedly from Kaywin Feldman, the museum's director, outlining the task ahead: "We are glad you made it! We believe the museum has been infiltrated by members of the secret society Nulla Vectes."

The app acts as a phone within a phone, its characters sending text messages, its camera revealing secret codes. At first, the app's developers stuffed the game with "bells and whistles and things," including location beacons and superfluous (but fun) apps, such as a calculator. "The more we tested, the more we learned that the museum is an amazing space, full of amazing stuff," McFadden said. "So our job was to sort of get out of the way of that."

McFadden and Porter work together on a team in the U's College of Liberal Arts that uses technology such as augmented and virtual reality to boost learning. They're also self-described geeks. Last year, both were frequenting the area's buzzy new escape rooms when McFadden saw the museum's call for projects for its 3M Art and Technology Award. "It was fresh in my mind," he said. "Also, escape rooms are expensive and logistically challenging because you have to coordinate getting all your friends to a place.

"So the idea of something that was free and a little more flexible was intriguing."

They dove into the galleries, exploring works from different centuries and countries. So that they wouldn't have to constantly redesign the game, they had to consider artworks' and artifacts' permanence, learning from museum staffers which pieces would be on display in a week — let alone in a month. Textiles, it turns out, get swapped frequently. One giant sculpture, which staff assured the pair was "pretty much nailed to the floor," suddenly disappeared to make way for the mega "Egypt's Sunken Cities" exhibit.

Unlike a typical escape room, there's no timer. Veering off into another gallery is encouraged.

"We didn't want people to feel rushed," Porter said. "Even from a logistical perspective: The museum probably doesn't want people running through the galleries."

'The grand squee'

When Kellian Adams was developing apps with Boston-based Scvngr, back in 2009, museums were scared of just that.

"They had this impression of people running through their galleries willy-nilly, pulling things off the walls," Adams said, laughing. The Walker Art Center was an early adopter, creating a text message-based scavenger hunt in 2010 for its gallery without walls — the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. By 2012, when Adams launched her own company, Green Door Labs, museums understood the appeal. These days, "it's not even a question anymore," she said. Most museums are in the app game. But over that time, those apps have changed.

"There's risk here," said Hegley, Mia's digital chief. "The museum sector has found that investing a lot of money in one-off apps hasn't necessarily been that successful." Museums no longer want to build bulky, expensive games that relate little to their work, he continued. Instead, they're creating apps that are "social, more engaging and, frankly, a little less expensive to do."

Those apps are "closer to escape rooms than video games," Adams said. Recently, Green Door Labs designed a live game for teens at the Smithsonian called the Mystery of the Megatherium Club: Mustaches and Mayhem. With it, young visitors explored all corners of the Smithsonian's castle, talking to staff members to discover clues and using black lights to illuminate hidden messages on the walls.

"Things are really drifting in this direction of being light on the technology," Adams said. "Technology is more of an organizing principle that guides you to more human interaction."

At a recent conference hosted by the American Alliance of Museums, tech leaders discussed the fact that visitors love the affordances of technology, Adams said, but are sick of staring at their screens. So museums are trying to use phones' functions as simple tools to get them to interact with physical objects and the people around them.

Over her career, Adams has gotten good at hiding behind banisters, quietly observing people play within the galleries. The magic moments are human, she said, such as when a parent and child discover the answer to a clue together.

"I call it the grand squee," Adams said. "I love that moment. That's why I build these things."