There is a specific hill in Argentina where several young dinosaurs died centuries apart. Millions of years later, I am looking at the 122-foot remains of one of them in the middle of the night.
The skeleton cast of the largest dinosaur ever discovered spans an entire room in the American Museum of Natural History, the head poking out one door and the tail out the other. In the dark, with only the bones illuminated, the scale is truly striking.
Such moments are a perk of what I told everyone was an “adult sleepover” and what the AMNH more carefully named its Sleepovers for Grown-ups. The $ 350 tickets are pricey, but includes dinner, complete access, tours, two shows, and getting to sleep under a gigantic blue whale. It’s also 21-plus, which was the main upside for the woman who calmly told me, “I love this museum, but I just really hate kids.”
It was June when I went, so the evening began outside. Waiters dressed in black and white handed out champagne flutes while a man performed on the cello. Women in summer dresses talked to members of a bachelorette party, who talked to a loud group sporting black T-shirts that say “T-Rex Does Planks.” (Later, the tutus came out and I spotted someone in dinosaur pajamas wandering the halls.) Someone was turning 50. People were there from North Carolina and Tennessee.
When everyone spread out to explore on their own, I was filled with a sense of foreboding. The museum has 25 interconnected halls, creating a labyrinth that would be confusing even for the navigationally talented, and I once got lost for an hour driving the single mile from my house to Target.
True to character, I ended up in front of the Hall of Human Origins (I think?) three different times in three different ways. I never made it to the Hall of Gems and Minerals. Somehow, the end of each elevator trip ended up with me in front of the mummies exhibit, which turned out to be one of the most fascinating parts once I found the guide giving the tour. No photos were allowed out of respect for human remains, but the guide lectured on the difference between Peruvian and Egyptian mummies, and how technology enabled archaeologists to scan a mummy and know exactly what was inside without needing to disturb it.
Other tours ran from 9PM until past 3AM. These hit all the highlights: the water hole diorama, the big mammals, the T. rex, and the Easter Island head named Dum Dum, which even I recognized despite not having seen the 2006 Ben Stiller movie that made it famous. (More than a decade later, visitors still ask to see Dum Dum.)
The maze was disorienting — but on the other hand,the sprawling building ensured no crowds even with nearly 300 people present. I had hoped to find groups to interview, but instead continually bumped into couples holding hands and staring lovingly at an illuminated exhibit of brown bears in an otherwise empty room.
Still, wandering alone among fossils of giant extinct fish has its own charm. Even getting lost seemed interesting because at every turn I saw an elephant, or artifacts from the Caucasus, or, to my surprise, a mini recreation of an avenue in Havana. (That was the Cuba! exhibit.) The silence and novelty of the halls intrigued me, though I’m probably not as much of a natural history buff as the other attendees.
Later in the night, everyone convened to the first-floor theatre. Luckily for me, this theatre was clearly labeled and easy to find, otherwise I likely would have missed seeing the alligator, golden eagle, and 12-foot Burmese python.
Half past midnight, the last event was “Dark Universe,” a Neil deGrasse Tyson-narrated space show in the Hayden Planetarium. The seats of the planetarium are comfortable, but lying straight on the floor and looking up at the the rounded dome made everything better. And again, though I can barely remember the last time I saw a star, I felt awed at the scale of the universe, just as I had been looking at fossils and thinking about the eons that separated them and myself.
When the time came to sleep, people headed back to their cots, unless they were quarantined in the separate room for people who snore.
The next morning, whale song wakes you up.
The next two Sleepovers for Grown-Ups will be Friday, October 13th, and Saturday, December 9th.
Photography by Hayley Bisceglia-Martin for The Verge