Some museums are now staying open overnight for parties of school children. Chris Fautley looks at the new craze for sleepovers
Let me tell you about Horace. Horace is a large black spider who lives under a friend's sofa; he is not the sort of creature with whom I would choose to share my sleeping arrangements. So, should the Creepie Crawlie and Bugs "snore-in" at Newcastle's Hancock Natural Science Museum go ahead - and at this stage it is still only a possibility - please count me out.
The Hancock has run several "snore-ins" - sleepovers to you and me - usually with themes such as Star Trek or Dinosaurs, and in doing so has become one of a handful of museums to discover just how popular a phenomenon this is.
The idea of bringing a sleeping bag and trying to sleep in daytime clothes on a museum floor hails from America, where the first sleepover was held in 1972. While the Science Museum pioneered them here in 1993, other museums have, for the most part, been slow to latch on. The reaction of the majority ranges from slight unease to utter horror at the prospect. Many point out they have enough trouble opening during daylight hours; others, the National Trust among them, suggest they are not really suited to such a service. Maybe it's one thing having dozens of 10-year-olds lurking in the half light amid 20-ton beam engines, but a different issue altogether when fragile and priceless treasures are at stake.
Certainly those places to have tried them have found them to be an enormous success; more than 4,000 children now stay over-night in the Science Museum every year, and on July 4 and September 26 the museum will be running two sleepovers exclusively for women in a bid to interest more of them in science.
At the Hancock, education officer Gillian Mason explains that sleepovers present the museum in a different perspective. Children especially like the idea of spending the night somewhere they're not normally supposed to. And, of course, it's great fun.
"That's the main comment we get back," says Alison Scott of the Science Museum. "It's a fun experience." The museum also organises themed nights; one school has enquired about future themes so that classroom work can be linked to them. "They're surprised," she adds, "at how much information we get over in such a short period of time."
Bradford's National Museum of Photography, Film and Television is another sleepover proponent, although it is now closed for refurbishment. Head of education Sarah Mumford says they will be hosting more after it re-opens next March, with specially adapted education rooms and food and drink provided. (At some museums, you have to pack your own midnight feast.) So what's the point of sleeping over? "It's one of the many ways we are getting children to associate coming to museums as something that's enjoyable," says Sarah Mumford. "It's fun, light-hearted and educational. It's also a good social experience."
Other venues to have put their toe in sleepover waters include Eureka! in Halifax, although only for cubs and brownies. Newcastle's Discovery Museum hosted a one-off for scouts and guides during Science Week. Cardiff's Techniquest has also experimented with sleepovers.
And what do the punters think? Mike Latter, head of science and maths at Hurworth House School in Darlington, has taken Year 4-7 pupils to Science Museum sleepovers every year since they started. "It gives us the opportunity to have a super time in science," he says. "You have exclusive access at a sleepover. You have the undivided attention of enthusiastic people. It's seeing hands-on things that say science is fun. We're desperate for scientists in Britain. If we can't enthuse eight-year-olds, we can't expect to enthuse them when they go to university."
If the current level of demand continues, the number of museums offering sleepovers is sure to grow. Romans, Vikings, armed forces, costumes I the possibilities are legion. But absolutely no creepie-crawlies for me.
National Museum of Film, Photography and Television, Bradford, tel: 01274 725347
The Hancock Museum, Newcastle, tel: 0191 222 6765
Techniquest, Cardiff, tel: 01222 475475
The Science Museum, London, tel: 0171 938 9785