To sleep, perchance to dream…of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure

Remember middle-school sleepovers? The giggling, the ghost stories, the midnight raids on the fridge? Well, imagine rolling out your sleeping bag beneath a 50-foot whale, at the home of the Star-Spangled Banner, or in the shadow of the space shuttle Discovery. That’s exactly what kids and their grown-up companions can do when they attend a Smithsonian Sleepover.

The Torch recently spoke with the Smithsonian Associates’ Liz Paige (Logistics Coordinator), Program Manager Brigitte Blachere and Volunteer Coordinator Jenna Jones about what goes into planning a slumber party for dozens of kids and adults at the homes of some of the nation’s priceless treasures.


Boy and girl laughing

Smithsonian Sleepover at the National Museum of American History.

What exactly is the mission of Smithsonian Associates? How do these Summer Sleepovers fit into that?

Liz Paige: Smithsonian Associates are responsible for cultural and education programming for all of the Smithsonian, for audiences of all ages—from infants to retired folks—We try to encompass them all. The Smithsonian Sleepovers are only one of the many programs we do every summer.

The movie “Night at the Museum” was very popular and inspired a sequel that filmed at some Smithsonian museums. Was that the impetus for this program?

Paige: When Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian premiered in 2009, we were approached by some colleagues at the Natural History Museum. That summer we used the movie as the inspiration for the first incarnation of Smithsonian Sleepovers. The kids watched the movie at Natural History’s Johnson IMAX theater and did activities based on the film.

The movie has been on DVD for years now so we’ve evolved and expanded the sleepovers to include so much more. We incorporate films and programs from the Smithsonian Channel that reflect SI’s mission and have added activities tied to many of the exhibits in each museum that relate back to the sleepover’s theme. Sleepover participants have explored everything from whale blubber and hunting a wooly mammoth to Egyptian cartouches, dinosaurs and the ocean’s “Twilight Zone.”

Children plunging hands into buckets at activity table

Smithsonian Sleepover at the National Museum of Natural History

American History Sleepovers were added about two or three years ago. We held our very first sleepover for the public at the Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center on July 9. We always to test runs with the children of employees two or three months before we offer the public program to see what works and what doesn’t. We get to take advantage of the Explainers program at Udvar-Hazy, which is always a treat for the kids. It usually takes us a good six months of planning and a team of people are needed to develop the sleepover. There are a number of programmers from here at the Associates but we also try to incorporate team members with other skills, such as Information Technology and Marketing. We also try to bring in people from outside the Smithsonian with education experience to give us a different perspective. We work as a team, do a lot of research and embrace what is special about each museum so each program is a little bit different.

It’s also a great opportunity to work with our colleagues in the different museums.

Jenna Jones: Yes, we not only collaborate with programming colleagues but also with the museums’ volunteer coordinators. By promoting the opportunity to their own museum volunteers, they helped us recruit some of the more than 125 volunteer activity leaders that interacted with the kids and adults at Sleepovers this summer and helped us make each of the 15 Sleepover dates run smoothly.

Volunters at activity table

Smithsonian Sleepover at the Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center

It seems volunteers are critical to the success of the Sleepovers.

Brigitte Blachere: We’ve brought on a lot of the volunteers and docents from around the Smithsonian, and they are wonderful at doing the Sleepovers. They get really involved. It’s so nice to have that pan-institutional collaboration to make these happen. We get volunteers from the American Indian Museum at Natural History Sleepovers and Natural History volunteers at American History Sleepovers. It’s a great experience for them because it allows them to use their knowledge in a different way.

Jones: We are so grateful for the level of commitment the volunteers have made this year. Many of them signed up to do three or more Sleepovers, making it their summertime volunteer gig. Having the volunteers return is so nice because our staff gets to know them personally, learn what activities they prefer and are best at doing, and know who to team up where.

Paige: We need about 30 volunteers overall for each Sleepover (the need ranges from 20 to 40, depending on the site), in addition to additional staff and Explainers. It’s fun and you get a T-shirt!

child at activity table with volunteer overseeing

Smithsonian Sleepover at the National Museum of American History

What other museums would be good hosts for Sleepovers?

Blachere: All of the museums are of interest to us. Anytime we can create a special experience in the museums we would love to do it, so no museum is off-limits. We held some Sleepovers at the National Portrait Gallery that attracted slightly older participants. We’ve talked to the National Postal Museum about a program that might appeal to younger kids—maybe not a Sleepover but more of a “Stay up Late at the Museum.”

It sounds like fun for the kids, but what about the adults?

Blachere: On American History Sleepovers, we always lose some of the moms at the exhibition of First Ladies’ china. Each First Lady is asked to select a china design to be used for the term of the Presidency. Lots of mothers get so engrossed in drawing their own china designs that their children wander off and we have to remind them, “Don’t you have a child somewhere?”

Paige: Since we’ve done Natural History Sleepovers for so many years, we tend to have a lot of repeats, particularly grandparents. Kids must be aged 8 to 12 and accompanied by an adult so we have a lot of grandparents who bring each grandchild once they reach that age. We get to know people because they return year after year with a different child in tow. It’s flattering and also helpful, because we can pick their brains about what they like and what we could change up.

Blachere: We have one grandma who is working through all her grandchildren. She’s complained (laughingly) every time we introduce a new program at a new museum, “Oh no! Now I have to begin all over again!”

Girl and adult at activity table

Smithsonian Sleepover at the Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center

Why do you think these Sleepovers work?

Paige: It’s a really unique experience. It brings in a diverse audience from all over the world to experience the museum in an intimate, hands-on way. Many of the participants are families who share the experience together. We have troupes of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts who make it a field trip. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend the night in one of our museums.

The big thing for us is we don’t want it to be school. We try to keep it fun. We’ve had kids turn down Disney to spend the night at American History with us.

Blachere: And they always want to come back!

Paige: That’s true! When we create these Sleepover experiences, they get a special peek at the museum, but they don’t see it all. For example, they won’t see the Hope Diamond or the Star-Spangled Banner on an American History Museum sleepover, but the kids and their families will be inspired to make a return visit. The kids always remember the time “I got to spend the night at the Smithsonian.”

Sleeping bags in front of exhibit case

Smithsonian Sleepover at the National Museum of American History.

Posted: 12 August 2016
About the Author:

Max Kibblewhite is a recent graduate of George Mason University and serial Smithsonian intern. When not writing for the Torch or volunteering at the National Air and Space Museum, Max enjoys weird art, indie music and very short walks on the beach.