I read the essay first, because I initially visited both via iPad and didn’t want to deal with audio/video in a public place (I’m unable to wear headphones comfortably at the moment). Even if I hadn’t started with the essay, I would have seen the influence of the game Myst on the exhibit. I can understand way the designers might have been drawn to it as a model: it was an immersive experience, award-winning, stunning graphics for the time. However, I think it was a poor choice of model for a historical game, at least one you’re expecting people to come to without any preparation.
Part of what made Myst so compelling, so addictive, is that you knew nothing and there were no guides (sure, you could fire up Netscape and search for hints on a BBoard, but why would you?). The entire experience was learning through exploration, gradual discovery through experimentation. Which seems like a great model for learning, until you realize that what people learn doesn’t necessarily stick, that some people will get fed up with wandering and just leave, and that it’s almost impossible to have any sort of transparency about the process by which the game/world was created.
What it is most like, in a way, is the old model of museum, where everything is all in cases with almost no label text and very little idea of how things came to be. Wonderful and fun to explore, but edifying only to the few who can work out how to make sense of everything. Modern museums have more fluid exhibits, with better explanations and interpretation about individual objects and how the objects relate. When creating an interactive site, you need the path to be a little clearer, the relationship to be slightly more evident. People can follow the route you’ve laid out, or they can wander willy-nilly, but at least they have an idea of where to go.
Wayfinding and context. If I were redesigning the Lost Museum, that’s what I’d give it. I’d have the object information open in the same window, to the side, rather than in a completely new window; keeping the exploration-story and the historical context more connected. I’d rework the navigation and make it more evident how to pull up the “what is this” information, so that people don’t end up rotating the Fiji Mermaid three times (which is what happened to me). There would be wayfinding, and the historical context would be made more evident.
As an alternative historical interactive, take a look at the Benjamin Franklin Interactive Timeline, part of the Benjamin Franklin Exhibit (which is at the National Archives through May 6!). It’s in Flash (boo!), but I think it does a nice job of allowing for exploration, adding games and video, while maintaining a pretty good idea of what’s going on.