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Film Aside, Museums Have Their Tales to Tell

Dr. John Rawlins says he has heard strange things in the darkness at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. He's the curator in charge of the museum's invertebrate zoology section.
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Dr. John Rawlins says he has heard strange things in the darkness at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. He's the curator in charge of the museum's invertebrate zoology section.

Ben Stiller's security guard isn't the only one experiencing strange occurrences during A Night at the Museum.

Members of the real-life museum community have told of a few strange happenings of their own.

The movie, starring Stiller and a notable supporting cast, is set in New York City. The idea for the film came from a children's book of the same name, by Milan Trenc, an editorial illustrator. Like the movie, the book follows the mayhem that occurs at the museum during a guard's very first night shift.

"Security guards are my favorite," Trenc says. "There is just some magic about them, if you ask me."

That would be a good description of the senior security guards in the movie, played by Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs and Dick Van Dyke.

Then there's real-life guard James McGrath, who has been with the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History for about 15 years. He's a retired attorney. These days he mans the elevator.

He also likes to have a little fun with visitors every once in awhile.

A few years ago, at Halloween, he hid a button under his tie... a little pumpkin... that made a noise when you pushed it.

"You'd punch the nose and it would go 'ooohooohooh,'" McGrath recalls. "And a man came on the north elevator and he said 'I could never work in this place, all these bones and everything, this place is spooky.' And when he said 'spooky' I hit the button and it goes 'ooohooohooh' and I said: 'Y'know, sometimes when I'm in this elevator I think I can hear things and he says 'I think I can hear 'em too.'"

Innocent pranks aside, museums are, lest we forget, serious institutions for research and education. And scientists often work very long hours there.

In Pittsburgh, Dr. John Rawlins says he's spent many nights in the "inner sanctuary" of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He's the curator in charge of the museum's invertebrate zoology section.

"That's the bug room, basically," he says. "Insects spiders and the like."

That room -- with its 19th century cabinetry and wrought iron details -- had a bit part in the movie The Silence of the Lambs, when Jodie Foster's character is researching a rare and gruesome moth.

Dr. Rawlins is a scientist and not prone to irrational thought. But late one night, he says, he went into the pitch-dark room. As his eyes were adjusting, he thought he heard someone. Or some thing.

"I heard creaking and noises in the dark that sounded like slow footsteps walking 'cha-chung,'" he says. Then, he says, he heard a hushed, sliding noise. "To me, that's sound of one of drawers that holds millions of specimens being pulled out."

And Rawlins says three other researchers have had very similar experiences in that room.

Maybe that's one museum you wouldn't want to spend a night in.

Many museums host "real" sleepovers. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, visitors have a chance to sleep under the 94-foot, great blue whale suspended from the ceiling.

In the movie, a replica of the whale makes a cameo appearance... long enough to come alive... and burp.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.