Last Friday night was one of our favorite annual Philly events: MEMBERS’ NIGHT at the Academy of Natural Sciences (now of Drexel University). Every year for one night in September, the Museum stays open late. From 5pm to 9pm, they invite members in, and scientists and researchers and students and volunteers stay for the evening. They unlock the doors to their back offices and labs and storage rooms, and visitors get to to stroll “Behind the Scenes” and dig in to a whole range of cool science demonstrations and activities.
Our favorites this year ranged from the lighter — climbing into a diorama and dusting dinosaur skeletons (a perennial favorite among the younger set) — to the more serious: making microscope slides of water samples from nearby creeks and searching for diatoms; watching the dissection of a giant chiton; talking birds with a team of scientists as they taxidermied new specimens; and chatting with Curator-Entymologist Greg Cowper about a species of island-dwelling walking stick once thought to be extinct that — thanks to a bunch of super-zealous rock climbers trying to summit another island outcrop in the region — was later rediscovered.
If you’re accustomed to going to the Academy on a regular day, and are familiar with the front of the house, Members’ Night reminds you that what you see out there is just the tip of the iceberg, collections-wise. And, you develop this sense that the exhibits are really a freeze-frame of the living, growing, evolving hotbed of research and study that exists both behind and beyond. The generations of boxes and jars and shelves, filled with endless specimens and marked with handwritten labels in unimaginably beautiful script, remind you of the institution’s history too. (The ANSP was the first Institution of its sort in the US; founded in 1812, it was formed more than 50 years before the AMNH in New York and almost 100 years before the Smithsonian’s NMNH in D.C.)
Each Members’ Night, Academy Fisheries Scientist Paul Overbeck is posted out front with a boat and a collection of creatures pulled from nearby waterways, and Museum Director and CEO George W. Gephart stands right inside, greeting visitors personally. And I think they actually remember us!
One year, we were visiting with Ichthyologists, looking at jar upon jar of preserved sea creatures, and we asked a question about the dwindling population of sturgeon in the nearby Delaware River. We ended up being led through a warren of back hallways and stairs, turning on lights as we went, and down into a basement room where across from a sailfish (that my kids remember fondly), sat a dusty, taxidermied sturgeon that had been pulled from the Delaware sometime in the 1800’s. That jaunt became legend in our house, and was dubbed ‘The Behind the Behind the Scenes’ tour.
The whole experience reminds me of From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (by E.L. Konigsburg) or Dogs Night (by Meredith Hooper) or The Night at the Museum (by Milan Trenc — yes, it was a book first). All these books trade in ideas of off-hours, secret goings-on in esteemed museums, and their stories let kids in on those unexpected worlds. ANSP’s Members’ Night shares the magic of those fictional stories. And on top of that, the narratives that kids discover and tap into at Members’ Night involve both real, tangible work and the adventures and discovery and wonders of the natural world. And, honestly, things don’t get much more magical than that. (And apropos of that magic: check out Richard Conniff’s lovely Opinionator piece from last Sunday’s NYTimes, “Useless Creatures“.)