The divining rod is an unlikely candidate for disruption or reinvention. For a half-millenia, the mystical, y-shaped stick has been used by those attempting to locate everything from water to gold. But through a partnership between 3M and the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), the ancient invention recently received a a technological makeover from a team of Twin Cities artists, engineers and coders.

Mia’s new Divining Rod project leads guests on a treasure hunt around the museum, encouraging them to explore works from different genres, artists and time periods. After a year of brainstorming and development, the Divining Rods made it official debut at the museum last week.

The Divining Rod guides guests at Mia on a hunt for different types of art across the museum. (Photo by Maddy Kennedy)

The small handheld devices guide users from room to room, with a small white light indicating the general direction of the art piece they’re tasked with finding. Once they’re in the correct gallery, the device will light up and start buzzing. When users locate the correct painting, they tap the device to a card on the wall, which will prompt them to hit either “like” or “dislike” on the Divining Rod. Based on their decision, it will then lead them to other pieces it believe the user may enjoy.

“It’s going to be good for people who might typically feel intimidated by the museum,” said Molly Reichert, one of the device’s inventors.

The Divining Rod was created by Reichert, an architect, and medical device engineer Ben Arcand. The invention won Mia’s second 3M Art and Technology Award last year.

Neither Reichert nor Arcand had taken on a project like the Divining Rod prior to entering the competition. Reichert is an architectural researcher, designer and professor at Dunwoody College of Technology. Arcand is an inventor and entrepreneur with just under two dozen medical device patents to his name. Arcand is also the founder of ArteMedics, a medical device company that develops treatments and implants for animals.

Reichert and Arcand collaborated with local artists and coders Max Hoaglund and Blaine Garrett to build the Divining Rod.

The Divining Rod team was awarded $25,000 for their win, and another $25,000 to develop their device. Arcand said that they went through 10 prototypes before settling on the Divining Rod, which they appreciated for its “whimsical nature.”

“We want to get people engaged. Going to the museum shouldn’t be an intellectual death march.”

At a debut event for the device on Oct. 19, guests milled around the museum’s third floor galleries with Divining Rods, tracking down everything from tapestries to sculptures. Most in attendance appeared to be enjoying themselves, but Reichert said the project hasn’t been well received by all.

Some artists, she said, have had a “visceral negative reaction” to the Divining Rod, which they believe distracts from evaluating or appreciating the art by forcing viewers to choose whether they simply like or dislike a piece. But Reichert said that others enjoyed the device, because it helped them interact with the art, rather than wander aimlessly from one gallery to the next.

A museum goer uses the Divining Rod. (Photo Courtesy of Mia)

Starting a conversation about technology in art was partly what Douglas Hegley had in mind when he began the 3M Art and Technology award in 2015. As Mia’s chief digital officer, Hegley has spent the last six years developing projects that incorporate technology into the museum.

“We did this thinking about people, not wires or computers,” Hegley said. “We want to get people engaged. Going to the museum shouldn’t be an intellectual death march.”

Hegley said that the Art in Technology competition received nearly 100 entries last year. Applications are currently being accepted for the award’s third year.

After completing the project, the Divining Rod team decided to put their tech on an open-source platform, which they hope others will use to develop additional or alternative uses for the idea that they spent a year developing.

The project currently covers Mia’s third floor, which has 35 galleries. Five pieces in each gallery have been tagged for the project. Mia has around 20 of the devices, which are available for museum goers to use for free during weekend hours.