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Where Do Pricey Museum Sleepovers Come From?

Weirdly, institutions aren’t making tons of money off this global trend.

Where Do Pricey Museum Sleepovers Come From?
Image: Shutterstock

Last August, New York’s American Museum of National History held its first-ever adult sleepover. It was a risky venture, opening up the museum for nighttime guests, but the inaugural sleepover sold out within three hours. Seeing how successful the event was, the organizing committee began a regular grown-up sleepover series in December. All of the dates are sold out through June, giving 150 adult patrons, who are willing to shell out $350, a boozy evening among childhood memories.

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For years now, the museum sleepover has been a global trend among arts and culture institutions. There are some good reasons for this: It’s no secret that museums are working hard to keep visitors coming into their doors. According to the American Alliance of Museums, more than 66% of the country’s museums reported financial trouble in 2012. Special events, like renting space out for weddings and galas, provide one revenue stream for museums. But specific educational programs, like the sleepovers, do a greater service to museums than provide revenue. They’re designed to keep their visitors interested in coming back.

And these museum sleepovers weren’t only designed as marketing devices to attract nostalgia-driven millennial adults. They were created years ago to get kids interested in science. Today, the kids’ version of the sleepovers is still an integral part of museums’ educational programming and strategy for keeping visitors engaged.

Despite ticket prices that rival hotel room rates, these museum sleepovers aren’t big moneymakers for their institutions. London’s British Museum made just over £50,000 ($77,000) from its sleepovers last year, out of a total £2.6 million ($4 million) from special events.

Such a small percentage isn’t a great motivator for keeping the sleepovers going. But the outreach opportunity is.

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“Our job is to create additional experiences and interventions for [visitors] to increase their affinity and their interest in what we do,” says Beth Crownover, director of learning at the Field Museum in Chicago. The sleepovers are one way of doing that.

Held primarily at science and natural history museums, museum sleepovers give kids and their chaperones access to an entire museum, interspersed with structured activities, before the lights go out and the sleeping bags are set up. New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Field Museum are among the institutions that offer these overnights for kids at roughly $100 per head.

Museum sleepovers originally started targeting millennials when they were children in the 1990s. The Field Museum started its kids’ program around 30 years ago. And Boston’s Museum of Science’s program began over 25 years ago as a STEM program for girls in the ‘90s.

“Our original intent in overnights was to provide girls with a positive, lasting experience in our exhibit halls,” says Annette Sawyer, director of educational and enrichment programs at Boston’s Museum of Science (MOS).

Now, the MOS’s program has opened up so much that both boys and girls, from first to seventh grades, can attend. And they can participate regardless of the family’s ability to pay the admission fee. The museum would rather sponsor a child for the sleepover than maximize the revenue possibilities of the event.

“Today, we average 19,500 overnight guests per year, many of whom receive scholarships and discounted admission, staying true to the original mission of the program,” says Sawyer.

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The MOS aims to engage its smallest visitors in its science exhibits during the sleepover events. So on a typical night, a kid might watch a live lightning show, participate in a hands-on workshop, and sleep under the dinosaurs.

The same ethos of outreach holds true at Chicago’s Field Museum. While Crownover doesn’t oppose bringing money into the museum from the sleepovers, she puts reaching out to its visitors before everything else.

“I think the revenue that we generate from the program is a nice benefit to the institution, but our job is to provide opportunities to explore and discover,” Crownover says.

Dozin’ with the Dinos, the Field Museum’s sleepover program, had its most recent event this month for children aged six to 12 and their families. For $63, the kids got into the sleepover, but the more they paid, the closer they got to sleep to the dinosaurs. The Field Museum offers 10 to 11 such sleepovers every year, from January through May. The dates sell out fast, and the sleepover team recommends registering for the following year’s sleepovers the year before.

Any revenue a sleepover generates acts primarily to offset the costs of the event. As a convention, Crownover and her team estimate the costs of its special educational events and its sleepovers a year in advance. The only time when they would run into financial issues would be in managing the costs of larger events. Sometimes, those costs can spiral out of control, which would force them to cancel or postpone, but the sleepovers have been running smoothly.

Even as New York’s American Museum of Natural History’s grown-up sleepovers strike a chord with the now older millennial demographic, both the MOS and the Field Museum are still focusing its resources on getting kids to participate. Yet their educational teams are always looking to engage its visitors in ways that are different from visiting during the day.

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As far as offering an adult sleepover program, the Field’s Crownover says she’ll have to hold out. She just doesn’t have the staff for it.

“We have a lean and mean team,” says Crownover. “At this moment, we just don’t have the bandwidth to do something like that yet.”

About the author

I write about science and technology in the global marketplace, with a bent towards women in STEM. My work has appeared elsewhere in Quartz, Fortune, and Science, among others.

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