Night in the Museum: Sleepover at the Natural History Museum in London
“Fancy stalking the corridors as night descends and shrouds Tyrannosaurus rex in shadows?” The Natural History Museum’s website reads. Why yes, I do!
Now to be very honest, I’m not a big fan of camping, nor am I one to stay up late into the night. I’d rather be tucked into a cozy bed before midnight (ok usually way before midnight) and have a nice, hot shower when I wake up. This probably explains the skepticism on the part of my husband when I told him I wanted to spend in night in the Natural History Museum in London.
That such an event (billed as Dino-Snores for Adults) even existed was remarkable to me. At the London Natural History Museum no less; this was place I remember visiting with my parents as a child, a place I would still visit as an adult when I had the chance to visit London. I knew I had to convince him. I begged, negotiated, and (perhaps most importantly) promised not to be grouchy afterward.
I didn’t have to rush past crowded rooms to see the highlights before venturing on to the next exhibit. I could simply stand and reflect.
One summer weekend, we packed some borrowed sleeping bags and hopped on a plane to London. There was a set arrival time so I planned extra travel time in case our plane was delayed. We made contingency plans and booked a hotel room for that evening. That way we could leave our other luggage and have a place to nap/shower early the next morning. Logistics taken care of, we set off for the museum.
When we arrived there was already a line of people waiting outside the gates. Each of us peered through the black metal, wishing for them to open. Finally, after the museum had closed for the evening, the staff opened the doors for those of us sleeping over. There was an organized rush up to the terracotta tiled entrance. I was giddy with excitement and couldn’t wait to get checked in. My much more polite husband helped to restrain me from cutting in front of those ahead of us in line.
I quickly picked a campsite in an alcove off the side of the main hall. The location avoided the skylights but had a great view of the Main Hall’s dinosaur Dippy. It didn’t take long to set up camp – museum issued foam pads, our sleeping bags, and the pillows borrowed from the hotel. I had brought a t-shirt and yoga pants, a toothbrush, and hairbrush, all of which were quickly stashed in the sleeping bag for later.
I took a few moments to capture the scene. My camera captured the light fading from the sky through the ceiling’s skylights. I listened to the quiet hum of excitement that echoed from all my fellow campers. Even though I had been in the museum many times before, it was the first time I noticed the columns and tiles have natural themes – twisting vines and botanical sculptures. I slowly became aware of the subtle beauty of the building itself and how much effort had been taken in creating an appropriate space for the collections. I didn’t have to rush past crowded rooms to see the highlights before venturing on to the next exhibit. I could simply stand and reflect.
Soon it was off to dinner at the museum restaurant, which was quite gourmet considering it was served in the cafeteria. Asparagus and goat cheese to start, followed by roasted lamb on spring onion mash, and a chocolate and pecan torte for desert. The tables were communal so we were able to meet some other campers. Since we were Americans living in Scotland at the time, the topic inevitably came to what our impressions were of the country. It was surprising to learn that many of the English at our table had only been to Scotland once or twice.
Night in the Museum
After dinner, there were loads of activities from edible insects to a science themed comedy show to dinosaur drawing. We separated for our dinner partners and laughed through the comedy show and then got creative while drawing. These activities were designed to keep everyone entertained until 1:00 am when the exhibits were opened.
It was time for the main attraction –the incredible opportunity to wander at leisure through the museum’s exhibits (including the special exhibitions) with no crowds pushing past to get a good view. I could get up close with every exhibit. I could take my time and see details without having to worry about blocking the view of others.
The exhibits of museum extend from the main hall on either side, on several floors. The main hall itself is large enough to easily hold Dippy the dinosaur (since then replaced with a blue whale), both in length and height. At one end is the main entrance where on a typical day thousands of people freely (there is no admission charge) stream through. Opposite the entrance, across the expanse of the main hall, and behind the dinosaur are the stairs that guide visitors up to the other levels of the museum. Many days there is no clear path from one end to the other as people linger in the main hall getting their first glimpse of the magnificence of the collection.
My relief at discovering the dinosaurs had not come to life that night was palpable.
In the early hours of that June morning, the hall was littered with brightly colored sleeping bags. The lights had been dimmed for those who wanted to sleep, but the second floor arches were illuminated, making the room glow. The only obstacle between the dinosaur and the stairs was a single harpist, plucking the theme from Jurassic Park. The notes drifted through the near empty hall, drowning the hushed voices of other camper. In any given room, each of which had been built for large crowds, there were maybe one or two other couples.
Although there were many rooms to visit, the one I will remember most is the dinosaur exhibit. The darkened hall is a mix of fossils, explanatory exhibits, and animatronics. The last I had forgotten about until walking in the deserted hall I glimpsed movements out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head. No other people were in the room. Then a roar sounded from another alcove. I jerked my attention in the other direction. My relief at discovering the dinosaurs had not come to life that night was palpable. I did walk a little faster through the rest of the exhibit.
I wanted to visit every exhibit that was open, not just because each room contained an answer to the scavenger hunt. That’s a lot of ground to cover after midnight. Some exhibits I had seen before but now noticed with new eyes – getting closer to them than ever before. In the fossil exhibits, I could get so close I could trace patterns in the sand grains. The Creepy Crawlies exhibit was made creepier as the already giant insects seem even larger in the hours past midnight. At some point in the sea life exhibit, fatigue began to overtake me.
Night in the Museum: Sleepover at the Natural History Museum in London
I stayed up till 3:30 am wandering the halls and generally taking in the experience. For the longest time, I just sat on my sleeping bag, glancing around the main hall absorbing the scene around me. I didn’t want to close my eyes because I knew when I woke this enchanted evening would be over. The rippling notes from the harp drifted through the air, other campers tiptoed to their campsites.
Eventually I drifted off to sleep. Imagine sleeping under an ancient botanical fossil, in the most uncomfortable bed. The concrete floor was not cushioned by the sleeping bag and thin mat as padding. Its hard surface pressed against my body and no amount of rolling about could lessen the force.
By 7am the sun was shining in through the skylights. Some of the campers were still asleep, making it the perfect time to enjoy a few last quiet moments in the museum. I sat on the cold stairs filing this moment into memory as one of the most amazing experiences. I watched as others slowly awoke and rolled up their gear to depart. No one rushed about or spoke loudly. We were all in a daze, whether from the lingering atmosphere, the special experience, or just the lack of sleep.
I didn’t want to close my eyes because I knew when I woke this enchanted evening would be over.
There was a cooked breakfast and some much needed caffeine waiting for us before we packed up to exit. We had to be out so the museum could open for tourists. My night at the museum was over. I’m still not much into camping but it was a truly magical evening. One that I would repeat in a heartbeat, and one my husband is glad I talked him into.
Night in the Museum: Sleepover at the Natural History Museum in London top photo credit: Gene Krasko // Night in the Museum *