Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
A little over three weeks ago, I spent the night at the Museum. Armed with a box of coffee and assorted comfort foods, I clocked in through the employee entrance at 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, November 18th. Gotham Groove, the 32-hour event celebrating the opening of our landmark permanent exhibition New York at Its Core, was in full swing. The Museum opened to the public that Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m., and we were not closing our doors again until 6:00 p.m. the next day. I was on the night shift, strolling the halls, checking on the galleries, and answering any questions from 9:00 Saturday night until 8:30 Sunday morning. Now, dear reader, you should know that despite the fact that the hours between 9:00 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. are my most favorite hours for sleeping, I volunteered for the night shift. Not only volunteered, I launched an active campaign for the privilege of spending the night at the Museum.
My motivation was simple curiosity. I wanted to meet the person who goes to the Museum at three o’clock in the morning. If I am being perfectly honest, a small part of me was hoping the objects would come to life just like in the popular movie franchise. (For the record, this did not happen. The shirtwaist in the Activist New York gallery definitely did not escape its case and get into a heated argument on economics with the carriage boots in the Port City gallery. I swore “on the spirit of Andrew Haswell Green never to reveal what I have seen.”) Eagerly anticipating a night of adventure, I set aside my deep and abiding love of sleep and got to work.
9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. – The not-so-silent disco
When I arrived, the Museum had been open for 11 hours. There had been morning yoga, a Walt Whitman poetry reading, a trivia hour, and performances by no fewer than five a cappella groups. The Moth was an hour into the two hour NYC Storytelling Slam.
The audience in the Museum’s Ronay Menshel Hall looked like they were having a good time, but my post was on the first floor, right in the thick of the silent disco.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a silent disco involves everyone on the dance floor wearing a headset. Each headset lights up in one of three different colors that indicate which channel the dancer is listening to. Three differently illuminated headsets; three choices of personally delivered tunes. One channel was for the swing set, partners jiving to big band numbers; one brought back the boogie from the 1970s and ’80s; and a third pumped contemporary hits.
The idea behind the silent disco is that while the dancers are bouncing in their headsets, everyone else is left in peace and quiet. An admirable theory, it presupposes that none of the dancers will also choose to sing along. During a particularly well-known number about a “small town girl livin’ in a lonely world,” several of the revelers (including some Museum staff) were moved to shout along, fists pumping in the air. Drawn by the noise, I poked my head out of a gallery and smiled to witness joyful dancers. “Don’t stop believin,” the crowd cheered along, while we can only assume Journey was rocking into their ears.
1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. – Late night conversations
Every party must come to an end, and so too must every silent disco. The boisterous dancers ceased their twirls and competing sing-along at 1:00 a.m. During the first day of Gotham Groove, New York at Its Core saw over 2,000 visitors checking out its three galleries.
After the silent disco, things were decidedly quieter. Apart from one particularly jovial group, only a few individuals or couples wandered the galleries. Late night events were limited to screenings of classic New York films, but the few remaining visitors were happy to explore on their own without the hustle of the day time crowd. To get an idea of what it was like, take the pictures shown above and remove 95% of the people. This was late night at the Museum, and it was my favorite part of my shift. I got to engage with guests one-on-one having conversations that consisted of more than just directions to the bathroom. Turns out, some really lovely people show up at three o’clock in the morning.
5:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. – Morning from the other side
Eventually even the late night visitors left, and the Museum transitioned to early morning. This was the hard part. I had been doing a pretty good job of staying awake but my brain was starting to slow down big time. To keep active I began cleaning the cases in each gallery. That’s right folks: thousands of visitors meant thousands of fingers (and some noses) touching cases around the Museum. Little elves do not make those smudge marks disappear, Museum staff does, and we were expecting thousands more visitors on day two of this crazy, wacky weekend. There was a Gospel morning concert, a salsa dance lesson, a live performance of Broadway tunes, and yet more a cappella singing to set up for. (The one or two visitors in the Museum during 6:00 a.m. mic check were treated to an impromptu vocal performance by some of the staff including yours truly.)
Time alternately sped up and slowed down as I entered the home stretch. More staff filtered in to prepare for the day. A colleague came it at 8:00 a.m. to relieve me, and I took him through the rounds. I had made it through the night without incident. All the objects were safe, all the people were safe. While the Museum geared up for another ten hours of events and exhibitions, I put on my scarf and coat and stepped out into the cold, bright day.