Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Night at the Museum!

A newly recruited night security guard at the Museum of Natural History discovers that an ancient curse causes the animals and exhibits on display to come to life and wreak havoc. 

That is the one line story of the movie Night at the Museum released a few years ago. It involved spending the night in the American Museum of Natural History, lights out, dinosaurs, live animals, running around the museum in the night and it also had Ben Stiller. 

What would you do if you had a chance to spend a night at that very museum? We had it and we grabbed it. We have been members of the museum for some time but due to various reasons have never really had a chance to utilize the membership benefits. This time there was a mail announcing a members only sleepover night and I was piqued. 

The marketing information on the program had a list of interesting things to do - Guided tours of a couple of halls, exclusive access to the museum, Dinosaurs, Whales, live animal presentations, IMAX movies and importantly no Ben Stiller! 

We registered for the program and I will tell you it was an experience well worth the cost. The program started at 4:00 PM on a Saturday and lasted till the next afternoon. It could have lasted longer but for the fact the special parking discount was valid only till 1:00 PM after which we would have been required to pay a humongous parking fee. 

Coming back to the program itself, we were allowed in around 4 in the evening before the museum closed for the day. During the registration the kids got a souvenir backpack with some snacks, toys and a nice DVD on stars, produced by NASA. (The DVD has Hindi as one of the language options.) We were then let to roam around the museum till it closed. 

After the museum was closed we were taken to the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life where we were to sleep. Cots were already in place and we were to sleep under a 94 feet long blue whale. 

The roof of the hall was lit to make believe we were under water. The walls were studded with dioramas depicting various animals from the ocean kingdom. Our kids chose to lie down next to a pair of harbor seals. We dropped our sleeping bags and after a short orientation, we were ready for the activities. And there was no dearth of those. 

The evening was a blur of things to do and most of them happening in parallel. We were spoilt for choices. We decided to go first for an hands on class in Origami as my son is very interested in that. He chose to go with a very difficult crane and surprised the person teaching with his grasp of the technique. They even taught my younger one how to make a butterfly. 

We then attended a presentation of live nocturnal creatures, where an expert displayed and talked about boas, tree frogs, chincilla and porcupine . There were a couple of interesting events such as a meet a scientist, 3D Printing, African Writing, etc. that we had to miss as they were held in parallel. The food court remained open late for us to have dinner and there were some snacks provided later in the evening as well. 

We then moved on to the dinosaur hall. We were provided with a booklet of questions that we had to answer. The questions were about the exhibits in the hall. The twist was that the lights were all switched off and we had to explore the hall with flash lights. The kids had great fun in the darkness. The little one went off to attend a sing along session where they were taught some songs to sing. 

We then watched an interesting movie on penguins in the IMAX theater. I would rank the theater in Liberty Science Center to be much better than the one here. But the movie was very well received. It was almost 11PM by the time the movie got over. But we still had one more thing to do -  a bed time story! After some time to unwind, the lights were out by midnight with a promise that we would be woken up early in the morning. 

True to their word, we were all up and ready for breakfast by 7AM. After breakfast and the mandatory visit to the museum store, we had a guided tour on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, his contribution to conservation, and the dioramas on North American Mammals. Andrew, our guide, was funny and kept the kids  (and the adults) engaged. 

We had a very leisure walk through the other halls, including the Dinosaurs, African Mammals and Hall of Pacific People, where we had a head from Easter Island all for ourselves. In a museum that is normally very crowded, we could not have imagined such unhindered view otherwise. 

The museum then opened its doors for the public and we were allowed to continue for as long as we wished. We were also provided complimentary passes to two of the exhibitions which otherwise required additional tickets. The first one was one on whales with some very impressive exhibits of whale skeletons and art from whale bones. There were some very interactive exhibits on the life of whales and their current plight. A model of the heart of a whale was as big as a small car and my younger one was able to climb and slide to the arteries. 

The second was an exhibition called Global Kitchen that discussed food, change in food habits, change in the way we cultivate crops and generally the good and bad of what we consume. It had sample diets from various cultures, one of which was what Gandhi would have eaten. This exhibition also had a kitchen where a chef was cooking and we were able to sample what he made. Incidentally, that day was the last day for this exhibition and we were happy we had a chance to see it. 

There was a lot more to explore but by this time, it was midday and we had to leave due to some other commitments and to ensure we took the car out of the garage before the stipulated time. The kids made us promise that we would return to the museum soon before they agreed to leave.

Even though none of the exhibits came to life during the night and started to fight, we did have a fun evening and a great morning. My wife and I really had no idea what to expect and resigned ourselves for some dreary times inside the museum. But we had as much fun as the kids had and our only complaint was the lack of time to do all the activities that were on offer. 

The staff were very courteous and helpful. The minimum age was 6 and my daughter is five. I had written to them and they were prompt in responding and allowing my daughter to join. We saw kids much younger were allowed too when we went there. The maximum age is 12 and I am sure there can be exceptions there too. I was particularly impressed in the way the large group was handled without any trouble. 

Except when it is exclusive for members, sleepover programs are available for non members too. The website of the museum gives the particulars of the program including the calendar. I would recommend this for anyone with kids in that age group. Despite the relatively high cost, it is well worth it. Viewing the movie before going would make it more interesting!

Some more pictures can be viewed here