Film Aside, Museums Have Their Tales to Tell

Sleepover participants on a flashlight tour at the American Museum of National History. i i

Sleepover participants on a flashlight tour in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of National History. American Museum of Natural History hide caption

itoggle caption American Museum of Natural History
Sleepover participants on a flashlight tour at the American Museum of National History.

Sleepover participants on a flashlight tour in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of National History.

American Museum of Natural History
The great blue whale is one of the memorable exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in N i i

The great blue whale, one of the memorable sights at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has a bit part in the film, too. American Museum of Natural History hide caption

itoggle caption American Museum of Natural History
The great blue whale is one of the memorable exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in N

The great blue whale, one of the memorable sights at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has a bit part in the film, too.

American Museum of Natural History
Dr. John Rawlins with a collection of butterflies. i i

Dr. John Rawlins says he has heard strange things in the darkness at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. He's the curator in charge of the museum's invertebrate zoology section. hide caption

itoggle caption
Dr. John Rawlins with a collection of butterflies.

Dr. John Rawlins says he has heard strange things in the darkness at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. He's the curator in charge of the museum's invertebrate zoology section.

Ben Stiller's security guard isn't the only one experiencing strange occurrences during A Night at the Museum.

Members of the real-life museum community have told of a few strange happenings of their own.

The movie, starring Stiller and a notable supporting cast, is set in New York City. The idea for the film came from a children's book of the same name, by Milan Trenc, an editorial illustrator. Like the movie, the book follows the mayhem that occurs at the museum during a guard's very first night shift.

"Security guards are my favorite," Trenc says. "There is just some magic about them, if you ask me."

That would be a good description of the senior security guards in the movie, played by Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs and Dick Van Dyke.

Then there's real-life guard James McGrath, who has been with the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History for about 15 years. He's a retired attorney. These days he mans the elevator.

He also likes to have a little fun with visitors every once in awhile.

A few years ago, at Halloween, he hid a button under his tie... a little pumpkin... that made a noise when you pushed it.

"You'd punch the nose and it would go 'ooohooohooh,'" McGrath recalls. "And a man came on the north elevator and he said 'I could never work in this place, all these bones and everything, this place is spooky.' And when he said 'spooky' I hit the button and it goes 'ooohooohooh' and I said: 'Y'know, sometimes when I'm in this elevator I think I can hear things and he says 'I think I can hear 'em too.'"

Innocent pranks aside, museums are, lest we forget, serious institutions for research and education. And scientists often work very long hours there.

In Pittsburgh, Dr. John Rawlins says he's spent many nights in the "inner sanctuary" of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He's the curator in charge of the museum's invertebrate zoology section.

"That's the bug room, basically," he says. "Insects spiders and the like."

That room — with its 19th century cabinetry and wrought iron details — had a bit part in the movie The Silence of the Lambs, when Jodie Foster's character is researching a rare and gruesome moth.

Dr. Rawlins is a scientist and not prone to irrational thought. But late one night, he says, he went into the pitch-dark room. As his eyes were adjusting, he thought he heard someone. Or some thing.

"I heard creaking and noises in the dark that sounded like slow footsteps walking 'cha-chung,'" he says. Then, he says, he heard a hushed, sliding noise. "To me, that's sound of one of drawers that holds millions of specimens being pulled out."

And Rawlins says three other researchers have had very similar experiences in that room.

Maybe that's one museum you wouldn't want to spend a night in.

Many museums host "real" sleepovers. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, visitors have a chance to sleep under the 94-foot, great blue whale suspended from the ceiling.

In the movie, a replica of the whale makes a cameo appearance... long enough to come alive... and burp.

You, Too, Can Have a Night at the Museum

The Details

Event: Museum sleepovers for a fee.

What It Is: You pay a fee, you are bombarded with educational programs, you get to wander in the dark amid dino skeletons.

A scene from 'Night at the Museum'

Bad news, kids. In the real world, a lil' guy on a lil' horse will not pay you a visit if you spend the night at a museum. Good news: Your chances of being tied to railroad tracks are nil. Rhythm & Hues/Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Rhythm & Hues/Twentieth Century Fox

OK. So you took your kids to see A Night at the Museum. As a follow-up, you can actually take them to spend a night at a museum. As it turns out, museums across the country are more than happy to invite kids (and their parents) to sleep with the fossilized fishes.

The details vary. Expect to pay at least $30 a person. The size of the group could be intimate (15 to 30) or largish (300 or so). They are museums, so they try to cram in education.

"There are six lessons in the night, including live animal shows and behind-the-scene tours," says Timshel Purdum of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, which has been letting folks in after closing time for at least 10 years, charging $40 a person. But she admits that the real goal is to "be as fun as possible." (Never fear, parents. Coffee is on hand.)

Here's a sampling of museum sleepovers:

For $79 a person, the American Museum of Natural History in New York lets you wander the Hall of Mammals with a flashlight and sleep beneath the 94-foot-long blue whale.

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has an overnight "Spy Camp." Kids are encouraged to hone their sleuthing abilities as they solve a mystery in the museum. On their down time, they can watch an IMAX movie or explore the Giant Heart exhibit. Admission is $39.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County sends kids on a museum-wide scavenger hunt. They can also play with dinosaur fossils — and maybe even learn a few things about paleontology. The cost is $43.

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, a group of 30 can pay $2,100 for a customized overnight stay. Activities include "Spooky Science" demos, star shows in the planetarium and late-night strolls through the butterfly center.

Spots tend to fill up months in advance. So sign up early.

But don't expect movie-style hijinks.

"Never has anybody wandered off," Purdum says. "The worst thing that ever happens is someone getting sick. Someone always throws up."

So pick a museum and throw down a sleeping bag. But maybe not under the T. rex — just in case.

Thomas Pierce, who’s spending a year at NPR as a part of the Joan B. Kroc Fellowship, has wanted to sleep next to a woolly mammoth ever since he did a fifth-grade project on the extinct mammal.

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