Some Tips for Planning a Museum Overnight, or "Camp-In"

April Whitt

Live from the Stratosphere has one flight, which like most astronomical observations, stretches late into the night. At least some schools, science centers and planetariums are planning camp-ins, or evening events in which local activities will complement the live telecasts. You'll see the fun at Liberty Science Center -- hosting an overnight camp-in -- and the Denver Museum of Natural History -- with a 3-hour evening event-- and we hope at least some of the school uplinks. April Whitt, astronomy educator at the Fernbank Science Center, Atlanta, and formerly with the Adler Planetarium, Chicago, and LFS's eyes and ears on the plane, prepared these practical suggestions about how to make such events both fun and effective learning experiences. We hope you find these useful: there's a world of experience concentrated in them!

Many museums and science centers around the world offer "overnights" or"camp-ins" for their members. Some are teacher workshops, where teachers share expertise and learn new skills. Some are family activities for parents and children, with programs for different age groups. Some are for scout troops. If you've never tried an overnight before, see if there's another museum in your area that has, and talk with the staff. The following suggestions are a starting place, but you'll get valuable information from other "veterans".

First, what is it you really want to accomplish with your program? Entertain? Teach? Babysit? Decide what your objectives are and who your audience will be.

Second, how do you want to do it? Will the participants stay all night? Stay until some set time (like midnight)? Can you accomplish your goals in a few hours, or will it take longer?

Next, how many people will your museum accommodate? Think truly practical details here. If your guests will be sleeping over, is there a carpeted area out of the way where they can spread out their sleeping bags? You'll need roughly 3 by 6 feet of floor space for each sleeper. Is there a way to darken the sleeping way where they can spread out their sleeping bags? Are there enough restroom facilities? You might want to experiment with a small group first to see what potential problems can arise.

Next, who's going to run this "circus"? A coordinator is a must. Think about space and materials for activities, how many staff you'll need to run the activities, guides to move people around, what "self-guiding" tours you can provide, what security is required. Think about clear signage. When people arrive, can they see where to check in and where the restrooms are? Post the master schedule (in BIG LETTERS) somewhere.

However you decide to handle this, make clear to the participants what's involved: how the registrations will be accepted: by phone, by mail, electronically, in person. If you list phone numbers, make sure there are knowledgeable staff to answer the phones. Frustrated callers are not good publicity! If there is a charge, make clear what the fee covers: registration, materials, food, etc. Provide notice about any "extras" i.e. bring money for the gift shop, for the snack machines, whatever. Or instruct them NOT to bring extra money.

Be sure that participants sign any waivers needed (medical, liability insurance, etc.) On the application that participants complete, get a phone number of whom to call in an emergency, and find out if there are special needs (dietary, medications, wheelchair access).

Send a confirmation form or letter. Let participants know what time to arrive, exactly where to arrive, where drivers can park or drop-off (include a clear map), where to check in, whether they'll be assigned to a group or team. Include a list of "Things To Bring". For an overnight stay, suggest sleeping bag/pillow, toilet articles, flashlight. You might want to suggest wearing comfortable clothes that can be slept in, like jogging suits. List a phone number where participants may be contacted while at the event, in case of emergency.

Send out a copy of the schedule of events in advance, if possible. If participants will have choices of programs, indicate the possible choices. Clearly state any special rules your institution has (about smoking, gum chewing, touching exhibits, etc.) and state the "lights out" time for an overnight.

Be sure you have enough! Everyone does a better job and enjoys the event if there are enough "gophers" and people to answer questions (have them wear "Ask Me" buttons or some other distinguishing mark). Or design T-shirts for the staff so they're visible. Think about what needs to be set up (activity areas, food areas) and assign people to do the setting up and tearing down. If you're hiring extra staff to teach lessons, think about audio/visual needs: projectors, tape players, a PA system if the group is large. Make sure all the machines work! Find out what is needed ahead of time and have it there ready for the instructor. Provide access to a photocopier. For what activities will the staff be responsible? Classes? Guided tours? Crafts projects? A late-night film or video? A master schedule is helpful.

Involve staff in planning as much as possible. Be sure everyone knows what programs are going on where, and how to reach a custodian or the coordinator if necessary. Gather all the staff before the event begins to review the schedule and any fire-drill or other emergency procedures. If there are security guards, introduce them to the staff and vice versa. Make sure everyone has a copy of the master schedule. Make sure there is a health-care person present during the event. Have a first aid station ready, and be sure the staff knows where it is. Treat the staff well. Have a staff room or area set aside where they can catch a breath and have a snack. Build staff breaks into the schedule. If it's an overnight event, and the staff will be "chaperoning" the sleeping area, mark off sleeping sites for staff before the participants arrive.

It's a good idea to gather everyone together after check-in and go over the events of the evening. If participants are to work in groups, separate them during this orientation. Let them know to whom they can ask questions, the order of events, where the restrooms are, when and where the food will be served, where the first-aid station is, what time lights out will be, who the group leaders are, and any specific rules (that's right: the same rules you sent with the confirmation letter - it never hurts to reinforce visual learning with auditory!) Whatever the event, offer a variety of activities. You can have several "stations" that smaller groups of participants visit in order, a whole group activity, or a combination. If there are choices to make, and there is limited space in one of the choices, have participants sign up for it as they check-in. Every instructor's nightmare is material for ten craft projects and 17 people crowding into the activity. Schedule in some free time slots for participants to explore the exhibits (it's fun to do that with flashlights, after some of the building lights have been turned off), regroup their grey matter, or talk with newly made friends. If it's an overnight event, clearly state the "lights out" time (unless no one is going to sleep), mark its beginning with a PA announcement or bell, and adhere to it. Give participants a half- or quarter-hour warning before lights out.

If you're planning an overnight, you might want to have participants eat supper before the event. Plan the food you'll serve, decide whether someone will have to pick it up or if it will be delivered, and assign staff to the food area. A late snack is fun. Order in pizza and soft drinks (if no one cares about fat content), or get easy-to-eat snacks in bulk at a Sam's Club or Warehouse store. Fresh fruit, cracker packs, and individually wrapped snacks are easiest. Paper plates, napkins and cups are also available in bulk. Set up food buffet style. Drink dispensers are less likely to spill than open pitchers. Individual juice portions are available, some in recyclable containers. For an overnight, if you want to serve breakfast, try individual portions of dry cereal and boxes of milk, fruit, muffins, bagels: anything easy to hold and handle. Schedule times for snack and breakfast so participants will know what to expect. If participants will be eating in shifts, make that clear. Provide an specific area for food. If you already have a snack bar or lunchroom area, great! Tables and chairs are easiest for adults and older students. Younger kids like sitting on the floor. Remind participants to keep food in the food area and to clean up after themselves. Be prepared for spills. Make sure there are sufficient recycling bins and garbage cans.

Have participants complete an evaluation of some type before they leave. Have clipboards, evaluations and pencils ready at the check-out table. Ask if they could find the activities easily, what their favorite part was, how to improve the next event. Find out if the maps and signs were clear. If you can, get "door prizes" for each participant and distribute them as they leave (stickers, magnets, pencils with your museum's name on them, whatever).

ENJOY THE EVENT! If it's well-planned, with enough staff, that have been well-briefed on all the details, it will go pretty smoothly (there's always one glitch somewhere). Relax, grin at the person next to you, and have fun.

A special note from LFS:
Amateur astronomers are some of the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable local resources any school or science center could find. On-line, we've provided some phone numbers for the major national membership groups. There's no doubt the "electronic field trip" would be even more fun with some real telescopes at hand to permit youngsters to see astronomical objects with their own eyes -- if weather and local circumstances permit. Who knows, you might find ongoing expert input into your science classes from such contacts. Let us know how it works out for you.

by April Whitt
Astronomy Department, Fernbank Science Center, Atlanta, GA
and LFS Educator in the Stratosphere!

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