Sleeping with the dinosaurs
Our reporter lives out a childhood fantasy by spending the night in New York City's Museum of Natural History.
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Finally, at 10:30 p.m., after the well-received screening and star-studded reception, sleepover guests are separated from the black-tie Hollywood crowd and summoned back to the Hall of Ocean Life, where the lights have been dimmed. The effect is magical. Iridescent blue "skylights" fill the room with what looks like a glowing bioluminescence. Shadows ripple across their surfaces and dance over the arching blue whale. It gives new meaning to the idea of sleeping under the stars.Skip to next paragraph
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But it's not bedtime. Instead, the group files into the dinosaur gallery. The room is completely dark save for a flashing strobe and wild beams coming out of the flashlights the children carry, which flicker over looming dinosaur skeletons – and faces.
Chris Raxworthy, a curator of herpetology at the museum, wears a headlamp. He says he's spent some late nights working here. One time, after missing the last train home, he had to stay over. "Sometimes you get that, you know, funny feeling," he says. "But what's special about tonight is being able to bring my children." Timothy and George are museum regulars.
Unfortunately, the exhibit on lizards and snakes is fully lit, making it hard to get any sense of nocturnal behavior. But even though it's well past his bedtime, "Dave," a water monitor lizard, decides to be a good sport. He wakes up, looks around, and flickers his long forked tongue. Dave has been up this late at least once before – he was a guest on Letterman.
On the elevator back, a father tells the other parents that the last time a friend did this sort of thing, the kids slept only one hour. They look stricken. But by 11:30 p.m., many of the children already are sacked out, tiny arms hanging over the sides of cots. Shortly after midnight – official lights out time – the background din has quieted to a hum. The coziness of sharing a room with hundreds of urban adventurers is palpable. It is as close to camping as seems possible in a big city.
At 6 a.m., a few lights come on. The room begins to feel like a classy gymnasium after a school dance or a lock-in. Outside, the still darkened city is coming to life, oblivious to the great adventures that took place in here overnight. Groggy children submit to parents who help them out of flannel pajamas and into school uniforms. It's a Monday, after all. Others sneak a few extra minutes of sleep as bags are packed and sleeping bags stuffed.
Two boys exit with a flourish: They walk from the direction of the squid and whale diorama, pausing directly beneath the colossal blue whale to stage their own mini battle with the balloon light sabers that were made for them the night before.
Clifford Augustus has worked at Chicago's Field Museum for 23 years. In that time he's helped keep watch over its 20 million specimens during days, evenings, and overnight. Mr. Augustus tells the story of a colleague who was making her rounds late one night when she heard a scream. "She was so freaked out, she didn't want to go into the exhibit to see where the scream came from." The next morning, one of the mummy cases was found shattered, and the jaw of the mummy had dropped open, leaving its mouth in the position of a scream. The cause, according to museum scientists, was a sudden change in temperature. "You try to rationalize it," says Mr. Augustus. "But some things are just unexplainable."
Museums with movie-themed sleepovers:
"A Night at the Museum," American Museum of Natural History, New York. Children ages 8 to 12. $79; includes snack and breakfast. 5:45 p.m. to 9 a.m. (www.amnh.org/sleepovers)
"Dozin' with the Dinos," The Field Museum, Chicago. Children ages 6 to 12. $47; includes snack and breakfast. 5:45 p.m. to 9 a.m. (www.fieldmuseum.org/calendarsystem/overnight.asp)
"Night at the Museum Camp-In," Omniplex Science Museum, Oklahoma City. Cost of $40 for students, with OmniDome movie, snack, and breakfast; $25 for adults. 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. (www.omniplex.org)