The Museum of Illusions in Old City promises something different: Analog, rather than digital, exhibits and experiences that reward active participation by visitors. It looks like the Museum of Illusions will become a reality in Old City after all. Construction that was supposed to start last spring got underway in November. A supply-chain slowdown held up shipment of some exhibits from Europe to Philadelphia, but that was resolved in January. And this spring, the $2 million museum — offering elaborate optical illusions as well as board games, card tricks, and strolling magicians — is expected to open at 4th and Market Streets. “It’s been an ordeal, but we’re going to actually happen,” said Rob Cooper, chief executive officer of LOL Entertainment. His Philadelphia company is a franchisor of Metamorfoza, a Croatian firm that established the first Museum of Illusions (MOI) in Zagreb in 2015 and now has about 50 others open or planned in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. Cooper, a 42-year-old father of three who grew up in Downingtown and lives in West Chester, opened a Chicago MOI last year and is planning Boston and Phoenix locations as well. Almost all of the 80 exhibits at the Philadelphia museum will be analog, rather than digital.
Think puzzles rather than pixels, and optical illusions enabling the human eye to experience virtual reality without the encumbrance of a headset. “Instead of looking at screens, kids will be able to run around and do things,” Cooper said during a tour of the work-in-progress at the Philadelphia site. He pointed out where an Ames Room — a famous optical illusion credited to an American ophthalmologist named Adelbert Ames Jr. — will be a featured attraction. A rotating Vortex Tunnel also will provide “a big wow” for visitors, he said. “Almost everything will be interactive, immersive, and experiential, and will encourage people to take and share lots of pictures,” said Cooper. “The Symmetry Room has mirrors that create the illusion of floating in the air. My favorite is probably the Reverse Room, where it looks like you’re upside down in the middle of a Philly diner.” Another illusion with a local flavor will give visitors the sensation of falling from the facade of an Elfreth’s Alley building, and the eyes of an oversize image of Ben Franklin in the lobby will be lit from behind and seemingly follow pedestrians as they pass by on Fourth Street. The Philly MOI is leasing 5,000 square feet of space from the American Bible Society’s Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, which opened on the Independence Mall side of the block-long former bank building last year. The two attractions are separate, but “both offer experiences that are not your typical museum,” Faith and Liberty’s executive director Patrick Murdock said. “The Museum of Illusions concept has been proven [successful], and we couldn’t be more excited to have them here.” Along with the opening of the Museum of the American Revolution at Third and Chestnut in 2017, the Discovery Center and the Museum of Illusions “are three new, dynamic attractions that will help bring people back” to Old City and the Independence Mall area, said Murdock.
The neighborhood welcomes the prospect of new life at the sleepy northeastern corner of Fourth and Market, said Job Itzkowitz, the executive director of the Old City District. “We’re delighted to welcome another attraction that will draw visitors on the mall deeper into Old City to explore, shop, and dine,” he said. By phone from Zagreb, MOI founder and creator Roko Zivkovic said the original idea was to build “something different” to entertain and educate visitors. “At other museums around the world, you see lots of electronic [exhibits] with a paper on them, saying it’s not working,” said Zivkovic, who engaged local architects and designers in Zagreb to create the analog illusions that have become an MOI signature.
A team from Croatia will assemble and install the major displays in Philly, he said. Last year Metamorfoza was acquired by Inerva, a private equity fund with plans to double the number of such museums to 100 worldwide. Zivkovic continues to hold a minority stake in the company, as well as in LOL Entertainment. “The USA is a big market for us,” he said. “We are looking forward to bringing this concept to Philadelphia.” The Museum of Illusions will be open seven days a week and hopes to attract about 150,000 visitors annually. It will create more than 20 jobs, most of them part-time, said Cooper.