Sleeping with the dinosaurs
Our reporter lives out a childhood fantasy by spending the night in New York City's Museum of Natural History.
It's possible that a few children here have read "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," that 1967 E.L. Konigsburg classic tale of stowing away in the expansive marble confines of a museum. Let me tell you, the actual experience of sleeping in a museum is better than any childhood fantasy – even for an adult.Skip to next paragraph
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Tonight, the grandfather of natural science museums is relaunching its first sleepover program since 1988. Once the doors have closed to the public and the last visitor has been ushered out, 250 guests will remain behind to spend a night in this sprawling institution overlooking Central Park. At night, the American Museum of Natural History is exquisite.
Of course, this Sunday evening has none of the erudite rebelliousness of running away to test one's tiny mettle in the greatest of educational spaces. No, this slumber party is sanctioned. But little urban campers – and their fortunate chaperones – will still get a chance to peer behind the curtain.
Tonight's event is the first of many at the museum. The occasion also happens to be sharing billing and reception space with the world première of Ben Stiller's new comedy, "Night at the Museum," which was set here. Stiller plays a hapless nocturnal museum guard who discovers that the exhibits come to life.
Despite the red-carpet hoopla, many of tonight's visitors – children of museum employees, trustees, and other VIPs – profess to be more excited about the sleepover than the film. (Though moments after surveying the Hall of Ocean Life, where she'll "camp," an Ugg boot-clad gradeschooler tells a friend, "This is the coolest thing, ever – let's go find movie stars.")
Second graders David Kahana and Michael Bucca have come in from New Jersey. They are excited – and so are their fathers, who won the tickets at a charity auction. On the itinerary tonight is a flashlight tour of the dinosaur wing. David knows they have his favorite dinosaur there: a Triceratops.
"He just seems tough, with three horns coming out of his head," says David, touching his own small forehead. Michael likes the squid and the whale diorama, which isn't far from his cot (and was featured in last year's movie by that name). "They're fighting and that's cool," says Michael. "And when they're done fighting, the whale has scars."
I ask if they're worried that the 94-foot, 21,000-pound blue whale suspended above their heads may come to life in the night, like the exhibits in "Night at the Museum."
"It's going to be impossible," says David, giving me a look. "There's no water up there."
"Yeah," says Michael, looking up. "All there is, is air."
COSI, the science museum in Columbus, Ohio, is credited with being the first to open its doors at night, in 1972. Since then, many other natural history and science museums have followed suit – with a handful revamping their programs in time for the movie. Children's and living history museums also offer overnight experiences. And zoos and aquariums take advantage of the opportunity to spotlight nocturnal animals.
After escorting their children through the madness of a red-carpet, hallways, grand staircases, and into this 29,000-square-foot hall, parents unfurl sleeping bags and plump pillows. The settling-in process, which begins at 5 p.m., takes hours. Blame Ben Stiller. Before anyone can begin a flashlight tour of dinosaur fossils or an after-hours excursion into the live amphibian and reptile display, Stiller makes an announced "surprise" pass through the sleepover room and screens his movie.