Nights at the Museums

You don't have to be Ben Stiller to spend the night behind the scenes at a museum

"Sleepover with the Sharks" is one of two overnights the museum offers. (iStockphoto)

Bedding down beneath sharks doesn't sound like the smartest idea. But put a wall of thick plate glass between the creatures and yourself, and it suddenly sounds like a pretty cool way to spend the night.

That's just what the National Aquarium in Baltimore wants to provide in "Sleepover With the Sharks," one of two overnights the museum offers. For $79.95, guests can unfurl their sleeping bags on the carpeted floors of the underwater viewing area. There, after a dolphin show, a lasagna dinner and a behind-the-scenes tour of the aquarium, it's lights-out out at 11 p.m. sharp. An eerie green-gold glow emanates from the tanks, dappled by the shadows of sea creatures that glide silently through the water above.

Aquariums, museums and zoos have held slumber parties since the 1970s. The idea may have come from E.L. Konigsburg's 1968 classic, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basel E. Frankweiler, about two children who stay the night at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Almost 40 years later, the concept gained new popularity thanks to the 2006 hit film Night at the Museum starring Ben Stiller as a new security guard who encounters mayhem after dark. The sequel, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, is scheduled for release in May.

What goes on behind those closed doors or gates at night depends on what's displayed inside. The American Museum of Natural History in New York capitalizes on the Night at the Museum movie by allowing guests to pretend they're Stiller patrolling the dark halls with a flashlight. Farther downtown, a professional mountaineer shows kids the ropes as he rappels down a rope suspended in the Rubin Museum of Art's 90-foot atrium; later that night, there's story-telling at base camp about the mysterious "yeti" that roam the Himalaya. In Hawaii, guests can wake up with wild animals at the Honolulu Zoos – from a safe distance.

"For the most part, you can make money off the overnights," said Michael Fritzen, director of family programs at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. "It's a great way to capture a crowd for a special exhibit...The people who come may potentially be the next preservers of museums, zoos and botanical gardens."

Fritzen used to plan overnights for the Huntington, another Los Angeles cultural institution. One of the many children who went on the sleepovers now works there, he said, in part because of the attachment she formed years ago.

"People will come back as teens or interns," said Annette Sawyer, the Museum of Science, Boston's director of education and enrichment programs. "It's become so personal."

Begun in 1985, the Boston museum's overnights attract annually an average of 19,500 people, most of whom are children in scout or school groups; the program generates about $100,000 in net profit.

"It started as an opportunity to use the museum in down time," she explained. "There's something about being there when you're not supposed to be there; it's awesome."

Alexis Pace and Szu Burgess described their overnight at the Baltimore aquarium in similar terms. "We had a blast," said Pace, an artist in New York. "We could look across and see silhouettes of sharks swimming by. In the morning, we got to look at the dolphins more closely and talk to the handlers."

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