Carnegie Museums After Dark
By John Altdorfer
Nothing can stop a Boy Scout on a mission —not even an early January storm that left many Pittsburghers frozen in their tracks. On a blustery winter evening, a determined pack of wide-eyed Cub and Boy Scouts from the city’s northern suburbs joyfully trooped across the nearly deserted streets of Oakland for a much-anticipated nocturnal adventure at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
With sleeping bags and parents in tow, the youngsters from Troop 344 hustled double-time into the Forbes Avenue landmark for a night of discovering, creating, exploring, and dreaming during a Dino-ROAR sleepover—just one of many after-hours activities that attract a growing number of kids and adults to Carnegie Museums once the sun goes down.
“I’d rather come to the museum than play video games,” says John Baker, a 10-year-old Boy Scout from Wexford, as he sips a fruit drink inside Fossil Fuels, the cafeteria inside the Museum of Natural History. “This is my third or fourth sleepover, and it’s always fun to be here at night. It’s like having a backstage pass at a concert. You get to see and learn things that you wouldn’t find out about on a regular trip during the day.”
Annually, about 8,000 youngsters from the Pittsburgh region participate in these behind-the-scenes overnighters at both the Museum of Natural History and Carnegie Science Center. And while children are the target audience for the sleepovers, the Science Center and its Carnegie Museums North Side neighbor, The Andy Warhol Museum, provide plenty of entertaining, one-of-a-kind reasons for grown-ups to venture out for their own night at the museum.
Sweet Dino Dreams
Above Photos: John Altdorfer
For 7-year-old Adam Sucy and a handful of other scouts in his group, the excitement builds early in the evening with an up-close look at the laboratory of real-life paleontologists and artists, who together, are reconstructing fossil skeltons discovered around the world.
Next up is a visit to a real Jurassic park in the museum’s Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibit. And just like real dinosaur hunters, the boys get dirty digging for fossils in Bonehunter Quarry, their finds carefully packed and shipped off to a nearby “inspection station” for identification.
“You get to see and learn things that you wouldn’t find out about on a regular trip during the day.”
-10-year-old John Baker
During a break in the action, Adam declares that, one day, he’ll make really big movies about really big dinosaurs. But soon it becomes obvious what’s really on Adam’s mind: sleeping. Or, rather, the possibility of not sleeping during his first night at the museum. His plans are clear: to stay awake and keep an eye on the museum’s collection of stuffed, fossilized, and otherwise well-preserved beasts.
“I’m going to stay awake to make sure that nothing comes alive,” says Adam. “I won’t sleep a lot. That will be a problem in the morning.”
Reality will kick in soon enough, though, for Adam and the 50 or so other scouts on this nighttime adventure, and they’ll have no trouble getting some shuteye. As the lights dim about 11 p.m., the grown-ups inflate queen-size air mattresses and unpack pillows and
It comes as no surprise to Bonnie Weiss, the museum educator in charge of sleepovers, when the scouts sur-render so swiftly to the sandman. “We keep the groups small, so that the kids have a chance to get really involved in what they’re doing and learn,” says Weiss. “They have a lot of fun and always say that they’re going to stay up all night. But after so much activity, they’re exhausted and ready for some sleep.”
blankets, and the scouts roll out sleeping bags next to grazing zebras, a ferocious lion, and a family of jaguars.
Sleeping Under The Stars—Almost
Across town at Carnegie Science Center, the doors swing open for after-dark excursions tailored for children, teens, and adults. In fact, on any given Friday or Saturday night, the Science Center is practically the middle of the universe for junior scientists, big-screen movie lovers, starry-eyed celestial observers, and classic rock laser light show aficionados of all ages.
As is the case at the Museum of Natural History, sleepovers are a huge draw at the Science Center, where the number of slumber party guests can hit the 300 mark in one event-filled evening. Like their Oakland counterparts, Science Center sleepovers start with a group gathering. The big difference is that this meeting literally starts with a bang.
While a politely rambunctious crowd filled with pre-schoolers to early teens looks on, an indoor fireworks display ignites with various salts and colored powders
lighting up the room. Next, the audience erupts as a Science Center educator drops a rubber ball inside a jar of liquid nitrogen—at a bone-breaking minus-320 degrees Fahrenheit—and it smashes it into thousands of shards, demonstrating what happens when the molecules of a solid rapidly freeze.
Sleepover veterans Hannah and Ava Djakovich of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, sport matching red pajamas as they recall their favorite Science Center up-all-night memories.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 8,” says 10-year-old Hannah. “And every time I do, there’s something new to learn and something fun to try. It’s always different.”
Little sister Ava, 7, will spend the night in a sleeping bag. But if she could, her choice for a good night’s rest would be a bed of nails, a favorite “experiment” for many youngsters who stay over at the Science Center. “It feels tickly and weird,” adds Ava.
At first glance, 300 girls and boys investigating four floors of hands-on science-related displays looks pretty much the same as 300 kids visiting the place during a typical school day, except for two significant differences: there are no teachers and few parents, and the kids get to check out the place for nearly as long as they want.
“I could watch the fish in the aquarium all night long,” says 9-year-old Joshua Carnahan, of Fredericktown. “But this place has so much to explore. This is the fourth time I’ve been here for a sleepover. And there’s always something new every year.”
Tucked into a corner near the Miniature Railroad & Village®, siblings Ryan and Jared Hoge hail from the same Washington County Cub Scout troop—only 14 years apart. At 23, Ryan recalls his first Science Center all-nighter in the early 1990s.
“I was about 9 years old, the same age as my brother is now,” says Ryan. “I remember my sleeping bag being in pretty much the same place as it is now. And I remember an exhibit with an Arctic theme and some penguins. I had a lot of fun. Those were good memories for me. I came with Jared this time to share those memories with him.”
Date Night at the Science Center
The Science Center has an equally loyal following of adult after-darkers.
A perennial draw for more than 30 years, the Pink Floyd laser show in the Buhl Digital Dome still packs them in for Friday and Saturday midnight viewings. While the laser technology has changed drastically over the past three decades, the lure of the music—a recent show featured another long-lasting favorite, the tunes of the Beatles—remains the same, as do some of the fans.
“I came to my first Floyd in 1977, at the old Buhl Planetarium,” says Keith Kinser. “And I’ve been coming back to them ever since. I love the music. It’s timeless. My wife will tell you that I live here on weekends. But she comes with me a lot and so do my kids. I’d say it’s a good way to spend a Friday or Saturday night with the family. ”
The Rangos Omnimax Theater—which boasts a totally immersive visual and auditory experience on the largest screen in the ‘Burgh—is a unique alternative to the typical night at the movies.
“I came to my first Floyd in 1977, at the old Buhl Planetarium, and I’ve been coming back to them ever since. I love the music. It’s timeless.”
-Laser show visitor Keith Kinser
But when it comes to after-dark adventures, exploring the heavens just might be the ultimate Science Center experience—virtually and actually. Stargazers can explore the surface of Mars on a high-definition tour in the Buhl Digital Dome. Still, nothing beats the real deal of viewing Jupiter, the Milky Way, or even the familiar but still fascinating surface of the Moon through the Science Center’s 16-inch telescope, perched atop its fifth-floor observatory.
“Unless the skies are totally cloudy, we can promise that anyone who comes to our SkyWatch observations will see something,” says Dan Malebro, coordinator of the Science Center’s Henry Buhl, Jr. Observatory. “Even with satellite photos, science fiction movies, and the Internet, people still are amazed to see real stars, planets, and other objects in the night skies with their own eyes.”
Every Saturday night in March, wanna-be rock stars can take center stage at the Science Center’s Electric Lounge and bring down the house with Guitar Hero World Tour®, the popular Activision video game. Photo: Renee Rosensteel
Always A Good Friday
Micque Angel wants to know what the big deal is. A recent transplantfrom San Francisco, she’s determined to find out just what happens at The Warhol on Fridays—especially considering there’s half-priced admission.
“I’m not a bar person,” says Micque as she musses her spiky short platinum hair. “I did that scene for too long. But it’s not like I’m going to sit on my couch all night and watch the Cooking Network, either. So when I heard about this, I figured I’d check it out.”
“This” is The Warhol’s weekly Good Fridays, a social mixer of sorts from 5 to 10 p.m. Along with half-price cover charge, the weekly ritual offers eclectic enticements such as happy hour, beer and wine tastings, concerts by red-hot indie bands like Vampire Weekend, and film festivals with cult-movie director John Waters and other off-beat celluloid heroes.
Like Micque, Jaime and Alan Morgan of Wexford were curious about what happens at The Warhol after dark, so on their way to celebrate Alan’s 29th birthday at a lofty Mt. Washington eatery, the couple stopped in to check out the art.
“It’s Alan’s first time here, and I want to show him my favorite place in the museum, the balloon room,” says Jaime, referencing Warhol’s famous Silver Clouds installation. “It has a trippy feel to it, like you’re inside a snapshot in the 1960s, when Warhol was getting famous.”
Whatever reason people decide to drop in at The Warhol on a Friday night is just fine with Ben Harrison, The Warhol’s associate curator for performance. “The whole idea of Good Fridays is to expose people to a different side of The Warhol and to embrace our mission and promote it as more than just a museum,” says Harrison. “We’re doing that by presenting all arts across the board, taking our cue from Warhol’s studio, The Factory.”
Good Fridays at The Warhol and the Science Center’s laser shows and IMAX® films are popular after-dark fare on the weekends. Photos John Altdofer
Since the inception of Good Fridays shortly after the museum’s opening in 1994, The Warhol has earned the distinction of being the only museum in Pittsburgh to stay open Friday evenings—a fact not lost on Micque. (For more than a year now, Carnegie Museums’ Oakland museums have been keeping their doors open every Thursday night until 8 p.m., and through March 2009, an online coupon is available for “Thursday Night Lights” buy-one, get-one admission.)
“I expected The Warhol to be different than other museums in the city,” she says. “But it’s even edgier than I expected. And I learned a lot about how growing up in Pittsburgh really influenced Warhol’s work ethic.
“When you’re from a place like San Francisco you sometimes think you’ve seen it all. It’s good to know that you can still be surprised and learn something new—and have an interesting night out at the same time.”