Ever since we saw Night at the Museum, we’ve dreamt of being able to spend a night in our favorite museums. And now, we can! Many museums are experimenting with holding fun sleepovers in their spaces.
We’re taking an in-depth look at these innovative museum experiences. Our Night at the Museum series features interviews with museums holding awesome sleepovers, including the USS Hornet’s Live-Aboard and the California Academy of Sciences’ Penguins & Pajamas. We discuss what their sleepovers include, how visitors are responding, and best practices for museums who want to develop this experience.
Our third interview features Dawn Eshelman, Head of Performing Arts for the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. Dawn is the brainchild behind the Rubin’s Dream Over experience, where visitors take a unique overnight journey with art.
Read on to find out how the Rubin Museum of Art developed their sleepover program, and Dawn’s advice for starting your own.
MH: What is your role at the Rubin Museum of Art and how did that lead to developing the Dream Over program?
Dawn: Here at the Rubin Museum of Art I have had a variety of titles, from Manager of Programs to my current title Head of Performing Arts, but my focus has always been on co-creating innovative programming that asks visitors and artists to step outside their comfort zone and grow through meaningful adventure. The Dream-Over came out of that spirit, and was developed in our collaborative programming department, and with our partners in the psychology field and the city-wide museum education community. It takes nearly 20 psychology students/professionals and 30 docents from museums around the city to put on the Dream-Over for 90 dreamers, so it’s very collaborative.
MH: What was the inspiration for doing sleepovers, and specifically, the Dream Over concept?
Dawn: I am interested in breaking down expectations for what museums can be and how we experience them. We had heard of a sleep over in the non-gallery spaces of a museum (at the fabulous Hammer Museum in LA) and were inspired to push that idea further, making it all about a connection with the art. Museum professionals are always trying to get people to spend more time with works of art, not just glance for a second and move on. This seemed like a great way to build engagement that was through a very personal framework and could make a deep impact. Many objects in our collection of Himalayan art were created specifically to be looked at for long periods of time – whether for educational or spiritual purposes – so the whole set-up felt authentic to who we are as an institution, not just a gimmick.
MH: What can participants expect from their night at the museum?
Dawn: Before Dreamers come to the museum they fill out a questionnaire. We ask 1) why people come to the Dream-Over, 2) what have been the three most important events in their lives, and 3) what color they most strongly resonate with. Based on their answers they are paired up with an artwork in the museum that is revealed to them when they arrive. They then spend the night in the galleries under that artwork, allowing them to spend a long time together. It’s kind of like a blind date with a work of art.
Dreamers are introduced to their artwork by docents, who visit them later in the evening to read a bedtime story they have written themselves, inspired by that work of art. It’s a sweet moment in the program, and my favorite time to wander around the galleries, because I get to take in snippets of amazing stories being whispered and see grown-ups all cozied up in their jammies. Psychologists come around in the wee hours of the mornings to hear people’s dreams one-on-one, and then we gather in small groups to share experiences. There are lots of other surprises along the way.
MH: How would art inspire dreams and enhance visitors’ experience of the museum?
Dawn: The art and the museum environment itself do end up making their way into many people’s dreams quite a bit, which surprised us at first. I think it’s a kind of creative interpretation tool. Instead of asking what they think of an artwork, or asking them to, say, make an artwork in response, we ask them to digest it and respond in a very different way. I think this really opens people’s minds to the fact that they can have a deep relationship to an artwork that they previously might have thought had nothing to do with them. So it helps them look and engage differently. Plus, it’s just fun. An experiment.
MH: What was your greatest challenge in implementing this program? How did you address it?
Dawn: My greatest challenge was convincing my colleagues we could do this without putting art objects and people at risk. We addressed every single fear and concern we each had (What if people “behave badly”? What if someone gets up to go to the bathroom at night and knocks into a precious sculpture? What if there are sleepwalkers?) and came up with a plan for each and every one. Interestingly, we realized that all the concerns we had were things we were already set up to prevent and/or deal with (except for sleepwalkers). We also take great care to set a tone of good-spirited mindfulness throughout the event that somehow seems to set a magical glow on the night.
MH: The Dream Over has been going on for nearly five years now. How have you kept the program successful? Do you change up elements of the night to encourage repeat attendance?
Dawn: We switch up a few elements but mostly we try to hone in on the essence of the program, keeping its alchemy and experiential nature alive.
MH: Have you been able to bring the level of engagement found during overnight stays to the everyday experience of the Rubin?
Dawn: Many Dreamers come back to the museum during regular hours to pay visits to “their” artwork. Part of the Rubin’s mission is to help visitors make personal connections to works of art so you will find the spirit of this type of engagement present in many of the programs we present.
MH: How did you address the challenge of having attendees staying in the Rubin all night — with things like security, not touching the exhibits, and personal safety of your attendees?
Dawn: Very, very carefully. As I mentioned above, we very purposefully set a tone of mindfulness and mutual care that influences the entire evening. And, of course, all our normal procedures are in place – guards and all – so the gallery rules are no different. It’s actually quite fun to have our guards present and involved.
MH: How have your attendees responded? Do you find that the Dream Over program attracts new audiences who might not otherwise have visited the museum?
Dawn: We have had an amazing response from Dreamers, whether they are Rubin regulars or first-time visitors (and both do come). People enjoy the novelty of sleeping in a museum, as well as the chance to engage with art so deeply. People have also told me they appreciated “being trusted” to be in the museum in this way.
The Dream-Over usually sells out in a day, if not a matter of hours, and continues to bring people to the museum who have never been here before.
But, of course, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, particularly if they can’t sleep. Ways Dreamers can avoid a bad Dream-Over experience include: 1) bring a cushiony, warm sleeping supplies (yes, we allow blow-up mattresses and freestanding hammocks) 2) earplugs and eyemasks! bring them no matter what! 3) don’t forget your sense of humor, 4) don’t worry about whether or not you will dream or remember your dream – you’ll still have an experience you will not forget.
MH: What advice would you give to museums that are looking to develop similar sleepover programs?
Dawn: Sleepover programs for adults are now a museum mainstay and can sometimes seem gimmicky. I would advise programmers to start with their institution’s mission and collection, and see what inspiration strikes from that place of uniqueness and authenticity. Think creatively about partnerships. Ask your artists to contribute ideas. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your audiences to take risks and try things that they may not otherwise. Kids are always offered playful experiences in museums, but adults want that meaningful adventure, too.
Thank you to Dawn from the Rubin Museum of Art for talking with us and sharing fresh new ideas.
Do you work for a museum? Do you have a program that is successfully engaging new audiences? We’d love to hear about it! Send us an email.
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