Overnight at the Museum
As Georgia Aquarium closes for the evening, guests admire stingrays and starfish, asking questions about ocean conservation before settling in for the night in one of the galleries. Then, they might drift off to sleep with views of undulating water and schools of fish floating above them.
Georgia Aquarium hosts about 100 overnight events per year, including its adult-only “Sips Under the Sea” events. “[Overnight events] have been consistently one of the highest revenue-generating programs that we offer,” says Meredith Daniels, assistant manager of guest programs at Georgia Aquarium.
Museums and aquariums around the world offer overnight experiences for families or adults-only sleepovers where visitors can engage with the exhibits in a more personalized way. New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) began offering sleepovers when the “Night at the Museum” movie premiered in 2006. (The grown-ups-only version of the event started in 2014.)
Since 2006, more than 100,000 people have slept at the AMNH. “The benefits of the program are amazing for awareness-building,” says Sacheen Sawney, the AMNH’s sleepover manager. “The program offers access to an incredible institution in an exciting and unconventional way.” (It helps that “Night at the Museum” was set in the AMNH.)
The Milwaukee Public Museum has hosted overnight events for more than 20 years, with up to 200 people each time. The kids’ overnights are so popular, the museum added an adult overnight event so “people who came 20-something years ago can re-experience it,” says Erin Goff, the museum’s public programs coordinator.”
Meanwhile, in Chichester, England, The Novium Museum hosts dozens of groups overnight each year. “We are pretty much the only museum that’s near to us that runs sleepovers,” says Portia Tremlett, public program engagement officer for The Novium Museum. Hosting school groups overnight helps build the museum’s reputation as a destination for other programs, too, and encourages repeat visits.
Museums and aquariums offer their tips for creating a successful overnight event.
Connect Themes to Museum Exhibits
Often, these sleepover events take on different themes, drawing inspiration from museum and aquarium exhibits.
“People want to learn more about their favorite exhibits,” Goff says. “You really can’t go wrong with dinosaurs or mummies.” Goff adds that the annual dinosaur- or mummy-themed sleepovers include hands-on activities tied to those themes and tend to sell out quickly. “With the dinosaur overnight, we’ve done making fossils that people can take home,” she adds. Temporary exhibits can inform themes for other overnight events.
Material presented during a sleepover can also be tailored to the ages of attendees. While families or school groups attending a sleepover at Georgia Aquarium might learn about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, attendees at an adults-only sleepover can listen to a newly added lecture on fish reproduction.
Create a Clear Schedule
Overnight events for adults can be somewhat free-flowing as adults float between exhibits or get behind-the-scenes tours while sometimes sipping cocktails, but events involving kids tend to require more structure. For instance, staff at The Novium Museum begins setting up for an overnight event around 5 p.m., and visitors arrive at 7 p.m. for a torch-lit tour. That’s followed by a craft activity, a break, a cardboard building challenge, and a bedtime story, all following the evening’s theme. For instance, kids make their own rocket and build a space station out of cardboard for space-themed sleepovers.
“Ours work well because we’ve all done them so many times,” Tremlett says. “It runs very smoothly. That’s been years of running them and adapting them; having a clear schedule of activities and what you’re going to do is very useful.”
Tap into Schools and Other Groups
For overnight events that are open to the public, marketing on social media, in member e-mail newsletters, or on signage in the museum can help spread the word. In addition to public overnights, schools and scouting groups are a huge market for overnight events and an excellent source of repeat business.
At the Georgia Aquarium, Scouts can earn an oceanography badge after attending a sleepover and writing an essay. The Novium Museum hosts a lot of space-themed sleepovers for Scouts because they can complete activities that count toward a space badge. The popularity of Chichester-born astronaut Tim Peake also contributes to the demand for space-themed sleepovers, which are called “Sleepanova.”
Plan Staffing Needs
Teachers, parents, or chaperones can supervise children to some extent (The Novium Museum requires groups to bring at least one adult per six children), but attractions will likely need some staff to stay overnight during sleepovers to provide tours and ensure safety. Goff says the Milwaukee Public Museum keeps guests contained to the second floor during sleeping hours by blocking the stairwells and turning off lights. “We have security guards also,” she adds, saying wandering patrons haven’t been an issue.
Georgia Aquarium has captains and guides for each overnight. “All sleepover staff are trained tour guides, but only some of them have also trained as captains,” Daniels says. “For each sleepover, I assign one captain plus as many tour guides as I need based on number of guests. Separately, we have volunteer spots available for our volunteers to sign up.” The busiest time for sleepovers is March through May, so volunteers may have fewer shifts the rest of the year and stay current on happenings at the aquarium by reading the e-mail newsletter. “Even though they’re not here all that often, they’re really dedicated, and they really care about the aquarium,” Daniels says.
Consider Storage Space
Overnight events can be supply-intensive, so storage space is key, especially if the attraction is providing some type of bedding. Most places—like the Milwaukee Public Museum—do not. “Everyone brings their own bedding, but we do allow air mattresses,” Goff says.
On the other hand, Georgia Aquarium provides memory foam mats, while guests bring their own sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets. “We can have up to 150 people spend the night here, so we have more mats than that,” says Daniels. In addition to storing the foam mats, “we have to have space for the snacks that we provide and program activities,” she adds. “Luggage is stored so they can get ready to go to bed at night.”
Despite all the logistics that go into planning a successful sleepover program, museum staff members say it’s a worthwhile program for staff and patrons. “It’s a fun way to explore the museum after hours,” Goff says. “It’s your own personal playground at night.”
Susan Johnston Taylor is an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer who frequently covers small-business issues.