“Just don’t worship anything.”
Such was the unsolicited advice I received from a grinning night guard at the American Museum of Natural History last Friday night. I was standing in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians hours past the institution’s normal 5:45 p.m. closing time, gazing up at a Kwakwaka’wakw mask squeezed between a sprawling display of totem poles. The lights were dim and I didn’t see him coming.
“No, for real,” the guard added as he trotted back into the darkness, leaving me once again unmonitored in one of New York City’s most cavernous attractions.
His counsel was questionable, for sure, but not off-brand. That night, I was one of approximately 200 adults who voluntarily crammed themselves onto very small and uncomfortable cots beneath the museum’s suspended Giant Blue Whale. VIP lanyards around our necks, we were making nerdy tweenage dreams come true by spending an actual night at the museum.
The AMNH has been sporadically hosting sleepovers since 2006, the year the first Ben Stiller-fronted film “Night at the Museum” debuted, introducing audiences to sophisticated characters like Rexy the animated T. Rex skeleton and a series of otherwise lifeless artifacts that rouse after dark. Unsurprisingly, the sleepovers are more often targeted toward children, but every once in a while, there’s an adult version that, according to Michael Walker, manager of media relations at the museum, almost always sells out.
The cinematic schtick was one even the security guards agreed to act out that night, to the utter delight of the grown-ups who paid a whopping $350 per ticket to be there. (Disclosure: I had a comped press ticket to cover the event.) Just to get the FAQ out of the way: Did we have free reign of the museum? Yes. (The public halls, at least.) Was there alcohol at the sleepover? Yes. Did we physically sleep? Yes. Did anything move as if empowered by an ancient Egyptian tablet? No.
To best illuminate what happens during one of these adult sleepovers, here’s a rough retelling of my itinerary. Behold, a night at the American Museum of Natural History:
I checked into the sleepover a bit late (doors opened at 6:30 p.m.) due to dramatically massive amounts of rain deterring subway travel. After heading in through the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial entrance in the back of the museum like I owned the place, I was greeted by Walker, who walked me to the check-in table to retrieve my itinerary, maps and the very official lanyard badge I’d wear all night.
After making sure I was aware of the T-shirts and activity books that came free with a ticket, Walker escorted me to the impressive Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, where the Giant Blue Whale hovered above hundreds of very closely positioned cots. He suggested I pick out a sleeping spot sooner rather than later. Since the cots on the edges were all taken by then, I settled for one sandwiched in the back, slowly acknowledging the fact that I would literally be sleeping next to strangers, hospital ward-style.
Really, at this point, I was just amazed by how industrious people were, with their inflatable pillows, certified sleeping bags and slippers. I asked Walker if any of these incredibly prepared individuals were returning slumber party guests, but he was unsure.
With over an hour until dinner, I headed straight for the well-stocked champagne station on the Milstein balcony. Access to most of the museum’s first, second, third and fourth galleries began the moment we got our hands on our badges. In fact, those who wanted to stray from the makeshift bar already could request a plastic cup to take their booze to go. By the whale, a few musicians called the 12th Night Trio played a selection of jazz covers of Britney Spears and Red Hot Chili Peppers. The evening became gradually more surreal as time wore on.
Orientation was relatively painless. Brad Harris, the museum’s senior director of visitor services, went over the itinerary and a basic set of rules. (No outside food, no smoking, lights out at 2 a.m.) When I asked Harris if there were any off-menu attractions he’d suggest I check out, he preferred to stick to the schedule ― the 122-foot Titanosaur was a must-see. I’d need a flashlight, Walker added. I felt like I was at camp and I did not hate it.
After spending some quality time in the Hall of North American Mammals (where champagne-tipsy people were already snapping selfies with bears, mountain goats, big cats, etc.), Walker summoned me for dinner. We ventured to the second floor and stood in line for a pretty substantial buffet: chicken and fish, rice, asparagus, salad, rolls, mini puff pastries, after-dinner coffee. There was a final bar with to-go cups, of which many, many people took advantage. Some fraternizing occurred, and I learned this was the first adult sleepover for most. People were pretty eager to start exploring. Some actually ran out of the dining area once they’d indulged in their last opportunity for booze.
Note: If you are wondering, at this point, whether or not people were consuming mind-altering substances beyond alcohol, my best professional guess would be: Yes, definitely.
I bid Walker goodnight and my self-made tour began. I opted to first visit the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, where I was mostly alone save for that secret security guard, until the 9:15 showing of “Humpback Whales” in 3D at the Lefrak Omnimax Theater. Then I watched 40 minutes worth of Ewan McGregor-narrated whale hagiography. The sheer gravity of this night at the museum was starting to be felt.
Here’s when the bulk of my exploration began. I rounded out the first floor: Hall of Human Origins, Hall of Meteorites, Hall of Gems and Minerals. Guided by the sweet sounds of climate change advocacy playing on a few gallery screens, I went on to spend about half an hour staring at rocks while simultaneously contemplating the horrors of overpopulation. Nearly everyone I passed rightly made a whispery joke about jewelry heists.
If I’ve yet to fully illustrate this, most of the museum’s lights were dimmed to pleasantly shady levels throughout the night, so I did indeed use my cellphone’s flashlight to navigate. Next: T. Rex, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, the massive Titanosaur on special exhibition. Were rogue grown-ups trying to touch the massive bones? Yes. Were there guards around to police the shenanigans? Yes, but they were surprisingly kind and lenient.
Onto the mummies. To locate the fourth floor gallery that housed them, one needed only listen for the hushed sounds of a diverse 21-and-older crowd having the collective time of their life. If anything was going to rise from their sarcophagi, 20th Century Fox-style, they were going to do it there. Spoiler alert: They didn’t. At around this point, I noticed two standout sleepover attendees ― an emotional support dog who had more than a few accidents throughout the night and a 20-something in Superman pajamas with a full cape.
Knowing that there was a live animal demonstration at 11:30 p.m. that no adult in their right mind would miss, I took the opportunity to stop by the so-called Lunar Lounge where we were advised to go if we were in need of snacks, beverages, outlets for charging our phones, or just a place to chat. It was pretty packed. The cookies and hot chocolate were OK.
I also stopped by my cot, where people were already napping. (A visibly drunk woman was sprawled partially on my blanket, and when I went to snatch it from her, she resisted.) I soon learned that snorers were being corralled in separate areas away from the primary smattering of beds. Pro tip: Claim your disease and you’ll get an isolated spot on the Milstein balcony. Worth the shame, people.
Up until this point, everyone had been behaving, for the most part. Faced with the prospect of live animals, though, the adults began to unravel. After a staffer took too long introducing the live animal show in Kaufmann Theater, a man in the audience began speaking over him, claiming that the staffer was hindering his ability to get to the proceeding space show. “Give me live animals or give me death,” was the general sentiment. After the agonizing revolt, an older gentleman finally took the stage with a parade of small creatures ― an owl, an eagle, an alligator.
Highlight: When he noted that the frantically flapping eagle had imprinted on him, which explained the loving sounds heard emanating from the bird’s box anytime our guide spoke aloud for the rest of the demonstration. He also scared us into believing that New Jerseyans are really irresponsible when it comes to gator-as-pet ownership. Quit it, New Jersey.
I need only say a few things about the “Dark Universe” space show that took place in the Rose Center for Earth and Space ― the pièce de résistance of the night, if you will. When the gorgeous expanse of our known universe took over the rounded screen, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s bellowing voice filled the Hayden Planetarium, alerting the audience to recent advancements in space exploration, there were audible gasps. Someone actually ran out of the theater, but I think her reasoning had more to do with alcohol than being overwhelmed by the sublime.
The excitement levels were dwindling. Many of the special exhibitions had closed at this point, so I lingered in some nearby first floor halls: Biodiversity and North American Forests, and back to the mammals. Several groups were rushing, nearly sprinting, to see bits of the museum before our curfew. I overheard a group of people from Pennsylvania remarking on how similar this night was to elementary school field trips, except this was better because they had access to alcohol and drugs. Fair enough.
Second stop by the Lunar Lounge. Some old public domain films were playing on a projection screen. I caught the 1902 silent movie “A Trip to the Moon.” People were already beginning to fall asleep on the floor as they charged their phones. “I was a kid tonight,” a man said to his female companion.
I strolled back to the big whale, impressed with my newfound navigation skills. Feeling pretty tired from walking what I imagined were miles through the museum, I decided to give sleep a try. I laid on my back and stared up at the belly of a beast, attempting to be as zen as possible, because when else was I going to be able to meditate underneath a giant sea creature? I was passed out by 3 a.m. I did not brush my teeth.
Eyes open, it didn’t take long to realize the magic had faded. (This, despite the fact that somewhat loud whale sounds played me into consciousness.) Breakfast was not in the upstairs dining hall, but in the downstairs children’s cafeteria, consisting of a few pieces of fruit, yogurt and muffins. The galleries weren’t open to us like they were the night before. I wanted to leave quickly, in order to maintain the sanctity of my sleepover and not taint it with the disappointing break of day. I rushed out the same way I came in.
The next AMNH sleepover, should you be curious, happens on June 30.