Scavenging for Fun on a Big-City Hunt

By Hetty Lipscomb
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 17, 2006

"It started out as something crazy and fun for friends to do," says Bret Watson, who used to orchestrate scavenger hunts in New York City. Instead of hapless searches through closets for Christmas novelty ties and power tools, however, Watson's scavenger hunts took place in museums where, through a series of cleverly phrased questions, his friends would "discover for themselves some of the fascinating and amusing things I'd see."

News spread of Watson's hunts, and soon friends of friends were begging for invitations. In 1993, the former magazine editor decided to turn his popular event into a business, and he established Watson Adventures, offering public scavenger hunts at such well-known New York venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History and historic neighborhoods, including Greenwich Village.

Now Watson has expanded his adventures along the Eastern Seaboard, staging scavenger hunts in such cities as Philadelphia and Washington. Though many of the hunts take place in public museums, Watson Adventures is not affiliated with museums, and hunts are not part of museums' educational programming.

I was slated to attend Watson's "Museum of Natural Hysteria Hunt" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, but I was a little leery: I had graduated from college almost (gulp) 20 years ago and hadn't studied geology, paleontology, zoology or anything else remotely useful. But the hunts "encourage teamwork as opposed to a test of prior knowledge," Watson reassured me from his New York office. Companies such as American Express, HBO, Google and Microsoft have used Watson Adventures to stage private scavenger hunts as team-building exercises. But public or private, teammates learn to rely on each individual's strengths to successfully complete a hunt.

Most participants enlist a group of friends and register for a hunt online. But if you go alone, don't worry; you'll be added to a team, typically of four or five people. When I arrived for the hunt, Carole Kaminski, a Watson Adventures "emcee," introduced me to a trio of University of Florida alumnae who were to become my teammates: graduate student Alison Ahearn of Arlington, government contractor Meredith Riddile of Arlington and Hillary Perkins of Falls Church, a supply chain consultant for IBM. "My brother and sister-in-law do [these] all the time in New York," Ahearn said of the hunts. "What else is there to do in the winter? Might as well go to a museum and do something fun!"

We named our team the Scavenge-Gators, in reference to the University of Florida mascot. Another team chose the National Mall Rats. In all, there were five teams made up of mostly Washington singles with the occasional tourist or married couple.

Kaminski and her assistants distributed clue sheets to the hunters consisting of 20-plus questions that could be answered by visiting specific artifacts in the museum. Each team also received bright yellow paper, which one member was to fill out with the group's answers. Kaminski launched the teams with a rolling start; each team begins its hunt with a different question so that teams don't get in each other's way or tip off answers to their rivals.

Our first clue involved the Hope Diamond. Scampering up the marble steps with my team, I felt like a contestant on a reality TV series, "The Amazing Race at the Smithsonian."

Many clues are couched in puns: The Hope Diamond question read, "What hopeful woman apparently thought, when storing her jewels, 'Sofa, so good!'?" The answer, we discovered from reading the exhibit labels, was Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, who used to hide the necklace in the sofa cushions. The wordplays add to the challenge. "Anyone can write a straightforward question, 'Find this plaque, what year is on it,' " Watson said. "What we're trying to do is come up with questions that show you something interesting or provide an interesting fact, and when you get the answer, it's almost like . . . that satisfaction of a jigsaw puzzle piece snapping into place."

Most Watson Adventures are geared to adults; the complexity of the questions and the duration of the hunt can be a bit much for the younger set. But a family version of the "Museum of Natural Hysteria Hunt" at the museum is scheduled for June 24.

We blustered through the rest of the museum, dodging baby strollers and tourists as we solved our questions. Many clues -- such as mummified cats, fossilized trilobites and Sikh weaponry -- were in exhibits we admittedly had never visited. You want to linger over these newly discovered artifacts, but as you have only two hours to complete the hunt, you need to get a move on.

"I need a drink," one of my teammates said as we stumbled down the stairs to cross the scavenger hunt finish line. All of us were tired. "Not only are you walking around, you're using your brain," Alison observed. Despite our best collective efforts, we came in last place with 22 points. As the winners, the National Mall Rats received Watson Adventures T-shirts, "plus," Mall Rat Chris Maisano declared, "the dignity and respect of being the best!"

Undaunted, I also attended the "Naked at the National Gallery" scavenger hunt, highlighting that ever-popular theme in art: the nude. Though there is nothing untoward exhibited, Watson admits that "every now and then, there's something that raises eyebrows," such as the rococo painting of a particularly suggestive game of blindman's bluff.

This time, I joined forces with Lindsey Pohlman, a teaching assistant from Rockville, lawyer Alexia McCaskill of the District and another team member who didn't want to be identified. A scavenger hunt enthusiast, Pohlman was eager to try a hunt conducted by "an organized, professional group." McCaskill was intrigued that this adventure was at the National Gallery, one of her favorite city sites. "All the hours I've spent here -- maybe it'll pay off," she mused.

Aside from the puns, the questions on the "Naked" hunt were more intricate, requiring an interplay of visual clues to find answers. One question, for example, led us to a George Bellows's painting of a boxing match. Though that work itself did not contain the answer, it cued us to look at a lesser-known cityscape by the same artist containing a detail that solved the question.

Seemingly, the answers came readily to our team. Yet there was one question that totally stumped us because it was open to interpretation. Looking at a late Renaissance painting of Galatea, we were prompted to describe her mode of transportation. According to the myth, Galatea was borne on the sea by dolphins, but the stubby fish depicted didn't look like those sleek animals. "They have whiskers, they're catfish," McCaskill said. Meanwhile, I, with my art history degree, tried to show off, claiming that they were hippocanthus, fanciful sea monsters seen on pieces of rococo silver. After some argument, our team settled on "big fish," which earned us half a point.

"The number one challenge for us is to make sure that there aren't people disputing," Watson said. "So we try to avoid questions that are 'in the eye of the beholder,' judgment calls."

But Kaminski, who has seen many a dispute, thinks there's some room for such questions on a scavenger hunt. "You don't want everybody having every single thing right; there's no competition. You really have to have some [questions] that are time-consuming or difficult. . . . Though they can be frustrating at the time, if you get them right, boy, you feel good."

After the "Naked at the National Gallery" hunt, I proudly wore my Watson Adventures winner's T-shirt on the Metro home.

WATSON ADVENTURES 877-946-4868 or "National Treasures Hunt" Saturday 2-4:30 at the National Museum of American History. Hunts are $15 per participant. Other scavenger hunts include "Naked at the National Gallery" April 22 2-4:30, National Gallery of Art; "Haunted Washington," exploring haunted buildings in the Lafayette Park neighborhood, May 20 6:30-9; "Secrets of Georgetown," outdoor hunt requiring digital camera, June 17 2-4:30; family-oriented "Museum of Natural Hysteria," June 24 10:30-12:30, National Museum of Natural History.

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