Guest post: Virginia Mayes-Wright from the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses on museum sleepovers

The latest in our series of guest posts comes from Virginia Mayes-Wright, the Director of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, who shares what she’s learned through years of running museum sleepovers.

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I’ve always run sleepovers in museums, and I’ve slept in some really odd places. Any museum can run a sleepover, it just needs a bit of planning, the right group for you and a bit of floor to sleep on.

I tried to join the British Museum’s Young Friends at the age of 16, but was told I was too old – so I asked to volunteer. My first museum sleepover there was an incredible experience, opening my eyes to what a gallery could be like at night and how the space could transform. Even a big space such as the British Museum’s Egyptian Sculpture Gallery can feel intimate: a museum at night feels like it belongs to the group inside it. And what better way to get kids interested in museums and galleries than to give them the chance for it to be their space for the night?

Sleepovers at the British Museum involve about 250 adults and children in families. They are split into smaller groups of about 50 to do a series of activities in the evening and the morning. These normally finished with building something gigantic. The Viking long boats were my favourite, probably because we had to stick them together at the surreal hour of 1am after the kids went to bed.

My role at the British Museum was an usher, moving the groups between the different activities. I learnt a lot about the mechanics of organising the event as well as several useful tips. Mostly, I learnt that parents (or the supervising adults) are generally more trouble than the kids! But once everyone gets stuck into the activities, you can’t tear them away. We once ran an activity that involved building pyramids out of sticks, and suddenly had a room full of engineer dads competing to build the biggest structure…

Girl Guides gathered around a cardboard model in a museum

Making cardboard models inspired by museum objects is a popular activity

The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is a lot smaller. We have a fantastic museum building but it’s much smaller-scale than the British Museum. In fact, as we have so few staff I run sleepovers on my own. So we target a completely different type of group to sleep over, one that I can manage and who already have a keen group identity. This tends to be local Guides, Scouts, and Boys Brigades etc. They come in a small group, already know each other, have a uniform and a strict sense of discipline within the group. The leaders are also very aware that the group is their responsibility, and they are used to sleepovers.

Depending on the group I plan four or five activities in the evening at about 45mins each. I set up the activities in different spaces in the Museum so we have to physically move the group around. This getting up and moving provides a beginning and an end to the activities, even if it’s simply moving from one end of the room to another. It also keeps messy activities contained (although glitter will always travel). The activities include one that makes the kids use the artefacts, a craft activity giving the kids something to take home and remember you by – and there is always storytelling. Every museum has good stories: they’re what we are about. There is nothing better than telling the best stories with the right amount of drama at the end of the night. It also puts the kids to sleep quicker.

We also provide a snack for our groups in the evening, and breakfast in the morning. As our groups sleep on our café floor, this is really easy to manage. It also means that the kids don’t bring too much food themselves; although there is always the midnight feast!

A photo of a Girl Guide looking at the lens of a lighthouse light

A close encounter with a lighthouse lens

My hints and tips for a great sleepover:

1) Invite the right target group, and make sure they are prepared for the experience. Whether it is families or Guides, you need to know how they are going to interact together, with you and the objects. One museum sleepover involved a school group who were nothing but trouble for the whole evening because of their ‘out of school on a trip’ attitude.

2) Plan and design your activities to fit the group. I print out time sheets for the event showing each activity and hand them out. You can always alter a plan if necessary, but do start with one! I always let the group have time to get settled in when they arrive and give a brief welcome. I plan a break after the first two activities, and one at midnight for a midnight feast. Taking food breaks mean that food tends to stay in one area, the one you are sleeping in. Having seen what we can do, one of the local Guide groups now asks for us to help them earn badges. My worst sleepover was a Boys Brigade group who I presumed would enjoy making up scary lighthouse stories. But there is always a way to rescue the situation, and we ended up playing hide and seek in the lenses.

3) Always carry a torch, and keys to the building. Know where the fire alarm is, and generally be prepared for anything that could go wrong. Being stuck in the dark in a gallery because something has turned off is no fun.

4) Finally, avoid sleeping bag races. Most objects on open display in galleries are larger, heavier and more dangerous than children. If you think the kids may need time to let off steam, design a game to exhaust them.

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Virginia Mayes-Wright is the Director of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses (www.lighthousemuseum.org.uk), and is happy to answer questions about her sleepover experiences. Her phone number is 01346 511022 and her email address is director@lighthousemuseum.org.uk. You can also follow the museum on Twitter here: @LighthouseMus.

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