Night at the Museum
I am proud to call myself an art lover. I studied art history in college and I’ve been to countless gallery openings. My own home is decorated with drawings, photos, and sculptures that I bought to help support my artist friends. And yet, I am not a big fan of museums. Call me crazy, but something about lofty ticket prices, huge crowds, and what I perceive to be an overly pretentious attempt to “appreciate” art just rubs me the wrong way.
I’m not alone in this thinking, and in recent years museums across the city have tried to lure people like me through their doors by broadening their approach. Exhibits have become less stuffy and the museums themselves have been given cutting-edge makeovers. Curators have embraced pop culture and technology, turning a visit to the museum into a field trip for the senses.
I appreciate this effort, but what really caught my attention is the nighttime action. The de Young, the Exploratorium, and the California Academy of Sciences have all added after-hours events to their respective calendars, complete with live music, thematically arranged presentations and, most importantly, alcohol. I decided to check them all out and see what goes on during the night at the museum.
Every Friday night, the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park features free Friday Night Soireés. The soireés are loosely organized around themes like French culture and San Francisco street art, but the real draw is the opportunity to see the museum and its collection after hours.
Which brings me to my first caveat. While the soireés are described as a nighttime event, they are really more of an after-work event. As in, immediately after work, and only then if you’re able to slip out a little early. The spiraling tower – the de Young’s most striking feature – closes at 4:30 p.m. and the feature exhibit closes at 7 p.m. In other words, show up early for the late event at the de Young.
I got there at 6:30 p.m. Even though the line had closed for the Birth of Impressionism exhibit and I couldn’t check out the view from the tower, I still think it was one of my better museum visits. The crowd was decidedly smaller than it would’ve been during the day and most of the people were downstairs drinking white wine. I wandered through the painting galleries more or less by myself, which seemed to amplify the majesty of the space and the art within.
In one room I saw nothing but oil paintings of food. In another I sat alone before giant landscapes feeling like a character out of a Wes Anderson film. Even the guards had checked out at that point and I got close enough to touch a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have touched. I usually burn out on museum visits after half an hour, but I got lost in this experience. I wouldn’t have even known the party was over if it weren’t for the fat lady singing (as part of the performance downstairs).
I came back to the park the following week for NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences. Having waltzed straight into the de Young for a solitary stroll through its galleries, I assumed that all nighttime museum events were mellow. So was shocked to find a line of people winding past the ticket counter and all the way around the building. In fact, no sooner had I taken up position at the back of the line than an announcement came over the PA saying that the event had reached capacity. Everyone who showed up after me got turned away. (Note to self: next time buy tickets in advance online.)
As it turns out, the line outside was a harbinger of the massive crowds inside. Apparently, the California Academy of Sciences is the premier destination for young, attractive singles on a Thursday night. A dozen bars were scattered throughout the atrium and under the rain forest, and every single one was buffered by a line of people 15 deep. The girls were all wearing heels and plenty of makeup. The guys all had on their tightest shirts. Jittery techno music pulsed over the house system. As I walked down to the underground aquarium I heard somebody yell out, “Omigod! Look at that big-ass fish!”
This was my first trip to the newly renovated Academy. I was taken by the giant, spherical rain forest and the glowing underwater tunnel. However, it quickly became apparent that I would not be getting any alone time in the hidden corners of this museum. A group of drunken girls pushed past me to see the snakes. All around me people posed for cell phone photos and exchanged numbers. I went upstairs to see the Extreme Mammals exhibit and was told to take a number and come back in an hour.
My inner crotchety old man was getting ready to lodge a formal protest, so I made a beeline for the nearest bar. The liquor did what it’s supposed to do, and as I relaxed I took in my surroundings. I started to realize the whole thing was pretty cool. Here I was drinking a cocktail underneath an artificial tidal pool, surrounded by sharks, alligators, and hot girls. I had just felt up a starfish and I would soon be learning about the intense mating habits of tree dwelling mammals.
One of the best things about the NightLife series is how well the Academy staff handles themselves and the hundreds of drunken guests. The biologists at the “petting tanks” work the crowd like bar mitzvah MCs, posing for photos and encouraging the squeamish among us to stroke the sea cucumbers. In fact, as long as you don’t mind paying $12 to get in and can find a cab to bring you home, I would say the California Academy of Sciences is definitely the place to be on a Thursday night in San Francisco.
My final stop on the after-hours museum circuit came a few weeks later at the monthly After Dark event at the Exploratorium. Immediately upon purchasing my $15 ticket, I could tell that this was going to be the event that most thoroughly embodies the San Francisco ethos. The theme for this month’s After Dark event was “Nomadic Communities.” Food was supplied by a flock of upscale food trucks – Kung Fu Tacos, The Crème Brûlée Cart and, as a nod to the Burning Man contingent, Dust City Diner. I opted for a couple of steamed buns from Chairman Bao.
A quick survey of the crowd revealed a much different group than my other evening museum visits. Whereas the de Young attracted an older, upper-middle class crowd and the California Academy of Sciences catered to the young singles scene, the Exploratorium seemed to be picking up everybody in the middle. I would put the average age at 35, and although everyone there probably works in the tech or design industry, they all looked like they’ve made more than a few trips to Burning Man.
In fact, I know this to be true because as part of the evening’s theme, Burning Man cofounder Harley K. Dubois was giving a talk on aspects of planning the temporary city’s annual event. As a self-professed urban planning nerd, I was eager to hear her speak. After a visit to the bun truck, I quickly devoured my pork buns and went inside to get one of the last remaining seats for the presentation.
The talk was even more interesting than I would have thought. I had no idea about the intricacy of negotiations between Burning Man and BLM, nor did I know what went into the planning and surveying of the event. While I’ve always been turned off by a certain stereotypical element of the Burning Man contingent, I found myself drawn into the logistics of how the annual desert celebration actually happens.
I ducked out and wandered the vast expanse of the Exploratorium, playing science games and listening to “explainers” describe the basic physics behind things like smoke rings and optical illusions. I watched a semi-convincing transvestite describe a solar eclipse. I noticed that all around me people were actively engaged in the exhibits. There was a lot less drinking than I had expected, and what appeared to be much more actual learning.
I sat down next to a man in a lab coat dissecting a cow eyeball and thought about all three of my after-hours museum experiences. I realized that in each case, the personality of the event seemed to match the personality of the venue. The de Young’s Friday Night Soireé was sophisticated and refined. NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences was youthful, loud, and full of energy. And the Exploratorium was funky and laid back with a punkish DIY feel that you could only find in a cavernous San Francisco warehouse. All at once I began to look at museums in a new light - a light I was only able to see when I went looking after dark.
Friday Nights at the de Young start early and end early, so be sure to get there on time to maximize your experience. The event is free, but parking in the underground garage is expensive – it ran me $11 – although it will save you a lot of time.
NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences is the most popular of the three evening events. Get there early if you want to see the rain forest or planetarium, and buy your tickets in advance if you don’t want to wait in line outside in the fog.
After Dark at the Exploratorium varies the most in terms of theme and content, so be sure to check online for details about food, presentations, and special exhibits. The Exploratorium also offers the most opportunities for hands-on learning, so be sure to bring your thinking cap in addition to your beer money.