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Cleveland's new Museum of Illusions is a kaleidoscope of views

Kaleidoscopic installation at Cleveland's Museum of Illusions
Kabir Bhatia
Ideastream Public Media
Kaleidoscopes abound at Cleveland's new Museum of Illusions, creating what general manager Krystal Casteneda called a museum of "edutainment" in the former May Company building.

Since its closure in 1993, the May Company building on Public Square in Cleveland has seemed like a mysterious place. That’s not likely to change with the opening on Friday of the Museum of Illusions.

For the past six months, 9,200 square feet of the former retail giant was reworked with a geometric theme to house exhibits of mind tricks and visual displays. The museum is not intended as a pop-up, but as a permanent part of the 109-year-old building.

“We have an illusion expert stationed in every area throughout the museum,” said Krystal Casteneda, general manager. “They're going to guide you to help you understand the science behind our exhibits. They’re intentionally interactive, so they're going to help you... know where to stand and get that optimal photo.”

Cleveland is the 50th location for the chain of private museums, which began in Croatia in 2015 and grew from the founders’ love of the “Brain Games” television series. Each location has exhibits employing mirrors, forced perspective, video projections and 3-D printing to create optical and physical illusions. Casteneda said her favorite is the Ames room, which looks normal from afar. Step inside, and visitors find a skewed set of walls which create the bizarre effect of having one person seem much larger than the other.

“Seeing the narrow depth of field, that really messes with someone smaller,” she said. “When I get to be the tall person in the room, it's a lot of fun.”

The concept is named for ophthalmologist Adelbert Ames, who created the first Ames room in 1935.

Exhibits in the museum are updated seasonally, and each location includes some locally specific flavor. In Cleveland, an upside-down basketball court is a nod to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ on-court dominance. Another exhibit allows people to look like they’re climbing a Downtown storefront. There’s also a walk-in kaleidoscope, a room of (seemingly) infinite mirrors and a wall where guests can manipulate colored light, all with their scientific origins explained. Casteneda said they're not just selfie stations, but educational.

One attraction, the vortex tunnel, carries a disclaimer, because it distorts one's perception of gravity.

“It gives you that illusion that the ground is moving from under your feet, but it's completely stable ground,” she said. “Other than that, most of our illusions are completely easy to access and walk through.”

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.