Film Aside, Museums Have Their Tales to Tell As the real museum community waits to watch the movie A Night at the Museum, curators and guards tell of a few strange happenings they've seen in their museum work.
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Film Aside, Museums Have Their Tales to Tell

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Film Aside, Museums Have Their Tales to Tell

Film Aside, Museums Have Their Tales to Tell

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I am Scott Simon.

Coming up, a gospel messiah. But first, "Night at the Museum" opens nationwide this weekend. Ben Stiller plays a night security guard at the Museum of Natural History. After everyone else is gone, the exhibits come to life.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports that the real museum community is eager to see how they are portrayed in the film. And some have even told her a few strange happenings of their own.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: The movie's director, Shawn Levy, says a natural history museum makes the perfect setting for a movie about the big what-if.

Mr. Shawn Levy (Director, "Night at the Museum"): Did the eyes of that wax figure just follow me? Did that stuffed diorama lion just move just a little bit. And of course you know it isn't true, but you can't help but be tantalized by the possibility that it might be.

(Soundbite of movie, "Night at the Museum")

BLAIR: Shawn Levy admits they took all kinds of liberties in the mock museum. There's a T-Rex that can be tamed. And dioramas from different centuries are placed right next to each other.

But what if some of those imposing exhibits did come to life? Like the gigantic elephant in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Henry, as he is called, is already posed in mid-stride with his trunk raised.

(Soundbite of elephant)

Ms. CRISTIÁN SAMPER (Director, Smithsonian Natural History Museum): He is actually the single largest African elephant that was ever collected. He is from Angola.

BLAIR: Cristián Samper is director the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

What happens is he (unintelligible) come to life.

Mr. TRENC: Oh, we'd probably send him for a visit out at the zoo, the national zoo. That's one possibility. That would be an interesting headline. Henry visiting the national wall by the Washington Monument scratching his back.

BLAIR: "Night at the Museum," the movie, 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 who moved to New York from Zagreb in 1991. One of the first places he visited was the extraordinary American Museum of Natural History.

Mr. MILAN TRENC (Author): This whole place is actually alive, so - because those exhibits are so lifelike that if you have a little bit of a child's imagination, as I do, I guess it's just try to believe that they really are not moving, at least at night. Ha. Ha. Ha.

BLAIR: Like the movie, Trenc's book follows the mayhem that occurs at the museum during a security guard's very first night shift.

Mr. TRENC: Security guards, they are just my favorite, you know. There's just some magic about them, if you ask me. They are like they are knowing all the things that we don't know.

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

(Soundbite of movie, "Night at the Museum")

Mr. BEN STILLER: (As character) Ahhh!

Mr. DICK VAN DYKE (Actor): (As character) Oh, don't do that. Would you opt for surprises?

Mr. STILLER: Really? I thought you like surprises. Like how you surprised me with the fact that everything in the museum comes to life at night.

BLAIR: Of course that's complete fantasy. But we met a real security guard who could have walked straight out of the movie.

Mr. JAMES McGRATH (Security Guard): I'm Officer McGrath. I was guarding the Hope Diamond one day and...

BLAIR: Officer James McGrath is a veteran security guard who's been with the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History for about 15 years. He is a retired attorney. These days he mans the elevator. McGrath likes to have a little fun with visitors every once in a while.

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

Officer McGRATH: You'd punch the nose and it would go, ooh, ooh, ooh. And a man came on the north elevator and he said I could never work in this place. All these bones and everything, he says, this place is spooky. And when he said spooky, I hit the button and it starts going ooh, ooh, ooh, and said, I looked around and I said, you know, sometimes in this elevator, I think I can hear things. And he says, you know, he said I think I can hear them too.

BLAIR: 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 spent many nights in the inner sanctuary of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He is the curator in charge of the museum's invertebrate zoology section.

Dr. JOHN RAWLINS (Curator, Invertebrate Zoology Section of Carnegie Museum of Natural History): And that's the bug rooms, basically. It's largely entomological - insects, spiders and the like.

BLAIR: That room, with it's 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.

Keeping in mind that Dr. Rawlins is a scientist and not prone to irrational thought, he says late one night he went into the pitch-dark room. As his eyes were adjusting, he thought he heard someone, or something.

Dr. RAWLINS: This is a two-level room, completely filled with bugs. I mean, it's millions of dead bugs, and I heard a creaking. And I heard noises that sounded like slow footsteps walking - chunk, creak, creak. Stopped. I heard a very slight hush noise, kind of a sliding noise. That's the sound of one of the drawers that holds these millions of specimens being pulled out.

BLAIR: And Rawlins says three other researchers have had very similar experiences in that same 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.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

SIMON: And you can find information about how to arrange for a museum sleepover on our Web site,

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