Museums at Night: The simple guide to sensational museum sleepovers

By Laura Crossley | 22 April 2010
A photo of children sitting in a circle looking up at an overhead camera

Can't Host a Sleepover? Won't Host a Sleepover? Nonsense!

With Museums at Night fast approaching, we're all deciding how we can get involved with this fantastic national campaign. While it goes without saying that any event you hold will be superb, I must beg the question: have you considered going the whole hog and opening all night?

If the idea of people staying overnight in your building sends shivers down your spine quicker than you can say risk assessment, you might like to read this…

Why?

Before planning any aspect of the event, ask yourself why your building should host a sleepover. For example, will it help you meet funding requirements or does it fit nicely with internal policies such as your public engagement strategy?

If, after carrying out this exercise, you are struggling to justify hosting a sleepover, you might want to think about using your resources to develop another equally brilliant public engagement activity.

Is it feasible?

The initial planning stage is arguably the most crucial part of the process; during this time, you will discover whether hosting a sleepover is possible.

Thoroughly research everything that you would have to rely upon in worst case scenarios, from fire regulations to insurance. As well as internal research, you may need to contact your local services, such as the Council and fire department, for more specialist advice.

Once you have considered the possibility of major incidents, think about smaller details, such as whether you have enough trained staff, and how cost-effective hosting a sleepover would be.

Do not be disheartened by this exercise; although the major issues may be insurmountable, there could be ways round some perceived obstacles. For example, if cost is an issue, or if your venue is too small to host sleepovers, you could think about pooling your resources and teaming up with other larger local museums or heritage sites.

Who?

The question of who your target audience will be may well have been answered when you asked "why?". After all, no-one is going to plan an event for adults while trying to fulfil a family inclusion policy.

However, if you have some freedom in terms of target audience, think about the groups you feel your venue could best cater for. This might not necessarily be children and young people; indeed, Ruthin Gaol hosts sleepovers and paranormal nights that are specifically for adults.

Other sleepovers target children (Norwich Guildhall), children and their parents/responsible adult (National Media Museum, Natural History Museum), British schools, uniformed groups and youth groups (HMS Belfast and The Deep), and Young Friends (British Museum).

Health and Safety

"Expect the unexpected,"warns Ngaire Bushell, Education Officer of HMS Belfast. "Spend a lot of time planning and carrying out necessary administration to try to ensure the unexpected doesn't happen too often."

Make sure you amend existing risk assessments to include any extra dangers posed by holding your event at night, and ensure you have the necessary public liability insurance in place.

Consider staff sleeping arrangements. While some venues allow their staff to go to sleep during events (providing they are on-call), others ask staff to stay awake all night. Make sure your choice is well-informed and that staff are comfortable with arrangements.

Activities

You could replicate your usual, daytime activities, but I'd suggest thinking about how you can make the most of the night-time setting. For instance, you might run an activity around the way in which darkness changes the look and feel of your collections.

Think about what is special about your museum or heritage site, and develop activities around this. At the Norwich Guildhall, a site with a long association with crime and punishment, for our Museums at Night 2010 event we held mock trials, as well as a Prisons and Prisoners storytelling session in the atmospheric undercroft.

Marketing

To shout about your event, send out a press release and, of course, input information about the event into Culture24's DDE system. The latter alone ensured local and national coverage of the Guildhall sleepover.

Consider whether you are able to incorporate sleepovers into your regular offer; this will ensure you remain in the public's awareness, which is good news for your marketing budget. Indeed, sleepovers at The Deep are so successful that word of mouth is almost all the marketing required.

Unique approach

A top tip supplied by Louise Kirby, Operations and Personnel Manager at The Deep, is to do whatever is right for you, your staff and your building. You know your internal vision, your staff, your building, your collections and your audience, so trust that the sleepover you organise will be perfect for all of these.

And a top tip from me? As your teachers once undoubtedly told you, there's no such word as "can't" - so go for it.

This article could not have been written without the help of the following people, who all host fantastic sleepovers: Victoria Boome (National Media Museum), Peter Alexander (Ruthin Gaol), Ngaire Bushell (HMS Belfast), Louise Kirby (The Deep), Lucy Griffin (Reading Museum and Town Hall), Emily Lange (Science Museum) and the Membership Services Team (British Museum).

Laura Crossley is a Project Officer for Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART), a private, charitable company set up to act as an umbrella organisation for all the fantastic and often unknown heritage on offer in Norwich. They strategically plan, regenerate, manage and promote Norwich’s heritage and act as a best practice model internationally for developing heritage as a social and economic regeneration vehicle.

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Museums at Night events are being added to Culture24's database all the time, so don't forget to check out the Museums at Night homepage to find out what's going on near you.