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Chicago Fun Times: camping out in the Field Museum



At 1:30 in the morning, Julie Collins, program developer at the Field Museum of Natural History, figured what the heck. She had always had the fantasy, and now she had her chance. She said to herself, "Go ahead. Do it. Do it." First she spread her sleeping bag and two pillows on the carpet in the Indians of the Southwest hall. Surrounded by a couple of colleagues and several glass cases filled with antique clothes and relics of the Mogollon and Hohokam tribes, and just a few cases away from a stuffed bison, she did a couple of cartwheels. Then she tucked herself in and slept like a log.

An hour before, Collins--"hostess" to more than 200 men, women, and children at the Field Museum's family overnight--had gotten cozy in the "Place for Wonder" exhibit and heard apocryphal tales. For instance, whenever Mary Ann Bloom, interactive program exhibits coordinator, worked overtime, she heard--exactly at the stroke of 7:10--strange goings-on. Breezes came out of nowhere, there were unexplained noises, lights fluttered without explanation.

Then there's the one about the mummy that people have heard screaming.

In the morning, there were more stories. A woman who'd slept in the hall of Eskimo artifacts felt hands going all over her body in the middle of the night. She wasn't scared, though. "It gave me a comfortable, calming feeling," she said.

Some people couldn't stop dreaming about 500 million years of the earth's history. Tossing and turning, they thought of botany and geology; the ghost of Bushman the gorilla, dead since 1951 and now stuffed and residing in a glass case; the mummies, Egyptian bodies interred before the Dynastic period; stuffed deer, manatees, elephants; dinosaur bones; cavemen dioramas. . .

And then there was the chanting at 4:45 AM. A low hum, it lasted for seven seconds. No one could explain it. But no one denied it was real.

"People's imaginations really run wild when they're sleeping in an atmosphere like this," says Collins. "But one of our volunteers in the education department, Dennis Kinzig, says we shouldn't be so ethnocentric. There are so many objects from different cultures and around the world in the museum that people found important in their lives, and may have worshiped for good reasons. These things have been around a lot longer than we have, and we have no business saying these kinds of phenomena can't happen. Dennis says things in the museum aren't phony or primitive. They've evoked strong feelings in other cultures for a reason."

Collins says, however, that the purpose of the first family overnight at the museum, in July, was not to scare people or break down their cultural biases. It was merely meant to be a good time.

"It's a great chance to expose whole families to the museum and what it has to offer," says Collins. "Usually, families visit the museum in different configurations. Dad works nine to five. Kids come with their schools. This is a way to bring families to the museum together, and that has a way of reinforcing learning, of making it so people can take knowledge home. A lot of things learned when staying here overnight can come in handy during the school year."

Collins says inviting people to sleep over makes the Field Museum seem an accessible place: "It says anybody can come here and learn something about other cultures."

Although families arriving in the early evening on that Saturday night were allowed to roam the museum on their own before bedtime, museum staff also ran several well-organized workshops in various spots: the anthropologists' version of the camp- fire program at the ultimate urban camp out.

"It's good to have the whole family do something," says Collins, although she doesn't object to families roaming. "One man put on a hula skirt in the 'Traveling the Pacific' workshop. His kids could see that and say, 'My father's not scared or inhibited to try something different. My dad's fantastic.' That's fun for a child.

"When a family's beating drums and learning Indian dances in the Pawnee Earth Lodge, kids say, "If my mom and dad or aunt and uncle can do that, I can too."'

In one workshop kids learned to write their names in Egyptian hieroglyphs. In another, they used flashlights to match pictures on cards with the skeletons of certain species in the totally darkened Hall of Dinosaurs. And in yet another, families made totem poles that the kids decorated using animal drawings that most reminded them of their families.

"Why are you using a toad?" a sweet, mild-mannered guy asked his fair- haired little girl.

"I dunno," she answered.

At 7 AM on Sunday, Julie Collins turned on the lights in the halls and glass display cases, a combination sunrise/playing of reveille. She saw an unbelievable sight: "The Field Museum looked totally different--kind of like a big campground. People were waking up and saying good morning to 200 other people they didn't even know.

"There were little girls in their gowns, teddy bears, toothbrushes. They were totally out of place. There were these humongous totem poles, dimly lit, guarding people while they were sleeping, making sure they had a comfortable sleep. Everyone was comfortable with their pillows and sleeping bags. It looked just like home--yet there was a clash. The 'Duck Tales' and 'New Kids on the Block' sleeping bags were propped up against artifacts like transformation masks from the northwest-coast Indians' ceremonies. It was the old world meeting the new. It shows the old and the new can get together and mingle and look comfortable, not ugly."

The next Field Museum family overnight will be held this Saturday, August 18, from 5:45 PM until Sunday at 8:45 AM. The cost is $30 for adults and $25 for children. Workshops, snacks (dinosaur cookies and juice), breakfast (Wheaties, bran muffins, and coffee), a late-night movie, and unlimited use of the museum are all included. Preregistration is requested; call 322-8854 between 8:30 and 4:30 for information and reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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