Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don't Let the Blue Whale Bite
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
I slept with a giant squid. And not just any squid, but one with hard eyes and a mean streak. The squid was attacking a sperm whale; I was just looking for a place to lay my sleeping bag.
Granted, on a recent overnight at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, I could have chosen friendlier sleeping companions: specimens of dolphins, harbor seals, walruses, a vibrant coral reef. The open space beneath the big blue whale was filling fast with pillows, Disney character blankets and stuffed animals.
"I think the most exciting part is going to be sleeping," said Miranda Leong-Hussey, an 8-year-old from New York who had installed herself under the whale's tale. "Because we are going to be sleeping in a museum, and that is so weird." And so wild, too -- in the taxidermied sense.
The museum's sleepover program, A Night at the Museum, had lain dormant for 20 years but was resurrected in January, overlapping with last year's release of the flick by the same name. The timing, however, was coincidental: Museum officials had mobilized the plan before they'd even heard of the movie, in which a night security guard is terrorized by animals and other exhibits that come to life.
"The opportunity to sleep under the whale is pretty exciting, and the idea that things come to life," Brad Harris, the museum's senior director of visitor services, said when asked about the program's appeal. "I think [participants] will leave here saying that things really did come to life."
When it came to the squid, I was hoping not. But in the dusk-to-dawn hours, the museum came alive in other respects. Nearly 400 kids and adults had the place to themselves, with no impatient mobs and, better yet, no need to wear street shoes -- fuzzy slippers would do. The museum is heavily staffed for the overnights, with at least one staff member per 20 guests; for visitors, the ratio is three children per adult.
"I hiked all over the museum with my mom," dinosaur-loving Andrew Kisler, 8, said over breakfast the next morning, which was served buffet-style by the cafeteria. Added his mother, Michelle Kisler of the Bronx, N.Y.: "We had such freedom. We actually read the exhibits. You don't typically get to do that on a Saturday." Not unless you can find a clearing amid the 8,000 to 15,000 daily visitors.
The New York institution isn't the only one throwing slumber parties. As our sampling below shows, other museums, zoos and aquariums in the region are supplying unusual sleeping quarters. They also organize special activities for overnight guests.
During A Night at the Museum, for example, there were origami lessons (penguins, easy; rocket ships, hard), moon-surface rubbings and walks through the butterfly conservatory, where the colorful insects alighted on hands and heads. "When you grow up, you can become a volunteer here or an entomologist," one volunteer said to a little boy with a Costa Rican owl butterfly perched on his shoulder.
At 9 p.m., kids armed with flashlights swarmed the dinosaur and fossil rooms, looking for clues to a puzzling list of questions as T. rex lurked in the shadows. "When it went dark, I was a little scared," said John Cunningham, 10, of New York. "But I liked flashing the fossils with the flashlight."
Once the children collected their wits -- and correct answers -- they settled into plush seats for a star-splashed planetarium show (the snores definitely came from the adults). Afterward, they brushed their teeth in the public bathroom, then curled up on their cots for bedtime stories and a documentary on dolphins. At midnight, the museum called for lights out.
Of course, lights out is a risible concept when you have a room full of mischievous children harboring flashlights. Yet, as if by magic, after the last beams were cast on the whale's belly, the room fell silent and the squid receded into darkness.