Museums are great places to take in incredible art, learn more about the natural world, and appreciate the culture of bygone eras and faraway places. No matter where you live, chances are there’s a first-class museum ready for you to explore. Or, if you’re in the mood to travel, there are plenty of strange (and strangely specific) museums you can check out.
But the beauty of a great museum is its offerings go beyond what’s hanging on the walls. Most museums have calendars full of events. Some of them are pretty standard. (Think opening galas, discounted evenings, and children’s days.) But some museums get pretty creative. Want to check out the weird and wonderful things you can do at museums in the United States? Read on. We promise you won’t be disappointed.
1. Have a sleepover, even if you’re a grownup
You can stay the night at the American Museum of Natural History in New York — a luxury you might have thought was only available to school-age children (or young members of the Tenenbaum family). The Night at the Museum Sleepover for Grown-Ups starts with a champagne reception and jazz music in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. Then, roam the empty halls of the museum, and check out your favorite exhibits. You’ll eat a delicious buffet dinner with wine and beer. And when you’re tired out, you can unroll your sleeping bag under the 94-foot-long blue whale in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life.
2. Party while learning about Earth and space
Maybe you don’t want to sleep over at the American Museum of Natural History. But you can still enjoy the museum after dark. Through the One Step Beyond series of events, you can party with a DJ or live band at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. “See and be seen under the stars as live bands, DJs, and VJs present the hottest music and project dynamic visuals,” according to the museum website. The DJ and cash bar sound like a great combination on their own. But the event is made even better by the setting. The Rose Center features exhibitions on “the vast range of sizes in the cosmos, the 13 billion-year history of the universe, the nature of galaxies, stars, and planets, and the dynamic features of planet Earth.”
3. Enjoy tapas with your artwork
Another New York museum where you can listen to a DJ while drinking and exploring? The Rubin Museum of Art on K2 Friday Nights. The museum, located in Chelsea, is dedicated to the life and art of the Himalayas and neighboring regions, including India. The events feature the museum’s music series. (That includes Naked Soul and Jazz at the Rubin.) And the cafe turns into the K2 Lounge, where you can check out a pan-Asian tapas menu. During a happy hour that runs from 6 to 7 p.m., you can take advantage of a 2-for-1 special on beer, wine, and well drinks. Plus, you can join a guided tour to learn more about the artwork at the museum or walk around the galleries on your own.
4. Go on a scavenger hunt
You can go on a scavenger hunt at the Brooklyn Museum. The hunt, hosted by Secret City, takes you all around this underrated museum. Secret City explains you’ll “explore the Egyptian Mummy Chamber, art by the Ainu people of Japan, a banquet table set for 39 of history’s most famous women, and much, much more.” Each team will get a set of clues. You’ll search for answers in a variety of exhibits, examining paintings and sculptures along the way.
5. Work out with professional dancers
You can take part in the Museum Workout with the Monica Bill Barnes & Company at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Participants follow Monica Bill Barnes and her longtime dance partner Anna Bass through choreographed exercises in various galleries. The museum promises “a physical and interactive journey through The Met in the morning hours before it opens to the public.” The art visited on the tour is curated by artist and author Maira Kalman. The soundtrack for the workout includes recorded voice, disco music, and Motown hits.
6. Take a yoga class
Prefer yoga to contemporary dance? You can take a yoga class with Namaste Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The museum explains attendees can “come see the MFA in a new light, with a one-of-a kind experience of a morning yoga practice in the soaring glass Shapiro Family Courtyard, before the museum opens for the day.” After your yoga class, you can explore the galleries and grab a cup of coffee in the museum cafe. Sounds like a great way to start a busy day.
7. Read Moby Dick
Are you a big fan of classic American fiction? You can participate in a marathon read of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick at Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea. The annual event is the longest running marathon read in the country. You’ll join other visitors on the whale ship Charles W. Morgan to read the novel aloud. (Each participant can read a chapter or two, or you can just listen.) You can even stay on the ship overnight if you make a reservation. The museum adds, “Over the course of the marathon, other surprises await, including an actor portraying Herman Melville, the theatrical staging of certain chapters by the TaleMakers theater troupe, and a live music performance.”
8. Burn your winter socks
Annapolis, Maryland, is another picture-perfect destination for fans of maritime history. And it’s the site of one of the most unique museum events in the country. You can burn your winter socks (and practice your oyster-shucking skills) at the Annual Oyster Roast & Sock Burning, held by the Annapolis Maritime Museum. The idea is to celebrate the spring equinox and the beginning of boating season by burning your winter socks. The museum has been carrying on the tradition since the 1980s. And the event wouldn’t be complete without oysters, both roasted and raw, plus barbecue, beer, and wine.
9. Learn about drugs — from the DEA
You can learn about illegal drugs in the United States from an unlikely source: the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum in Arlington, Virginia. The museum hosts interesting exhibits on topics, such as the history of illegal drugs in the U.S. In the 19th century, for instance, Americans’ drugs of choice included morphine, heroin, and cocaine. A particularly famous exhibition at the museum is the DEA’s bong collection, which reportedly makes the museum worth a trip all on its own.
10. Attend a Civil War ball
You can attend a Civil War ball (and brush up on your dancing skills) at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum in Alexandria, Virginia. Don’t worry if your Civil War era dancing skills are a little bit rusty. In the weeks leading up to the ball, you can take dance lessons to prepare. The Washington Post notes Gadsby’s was a tourist attraction during the Civil War. At the time, it was famous for its association with George Washington, who “attended balls and stayed as a guest at the tavern.”
11. Take a teddy bear to the doctor
Do you have a child who’s not a big fan of going to the doctor? An unconventional museum event might be able to help. You and your children can take a teddy bear to the doctor at the annual Teddy Bear Clinic at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. The series of events helps teach kids “age-appropriate health information and the importance of staying healthy, all while using their stuffed friend as the patient.” Kids get to wear a white coat and learn about immunization, dental health, nutrition, hearing, head and brain safety, exercise, and vitals.
12. Drink, watch a movie, and explore the exhibits
You can visit the museum exhibitions, enjoy live music, and take advantage of a full bar at Fernbank After Dark events at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta. On the second Friday of each month, the museum “offers a variety of unique after-hours experiences, including evening access to museum exhibitions, live music, full bars, tapas menus, films in the giant screen theater, and all-new science demonstrations and encounters.” Each month, the event has a different theme. But every event includes unique experiences, plus access to all of the museum exhibits and hands-on activities.
13. Enjoy pop-up exhibitions and games after hours
You can enjoy offbeat new installations or experiences that involve a movie or a game at the Mississippi Museum of Art series of After Hours events. The events happen on the third Thursday of every month. The museum explains, “These collaborations feature one-night pop up exhibitions and dining experiences and combinations of live music, outdoor movies, games, and more. Each month has a new theme and a new story.” The galleries and the museum store stay open late for you to explore and shop. And the events are family-friendly, which means your art-loving kids can tag along, too.
14. Make chalk and create a masterpiece
Art museums are usually dedicated to preserving art that will last decades or centuries. But thanks to an unconventional series of events at one Midwestern museum, you can learn to appreciate more temporary forms of art, too. You can learn the basics of making chalk and street painting at the Chalk Festival at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The museum explains, “Begun in 1990, our festival is a modern expression of a Renaissance tradition from 16th-century Italy in which beggars copied paintings of the Madonna by Raphael and his contemporaries, using chalk on the plazas outside cathedrals.” You can even participate in workshops on chalk making and decorate your own square on a museum walkway.
15. Check out floral arrangements
Another form of art you typically don’t see at a museum? Floral arrangements. But if you want to part ways with the status quo, you can enjoy floral interpretations of selected works of art from the permanent collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Art at its annual Art in Bloom festival. The four-day festival offers lectures, demonstrations, parties, and tours.
16. Go to a concert (that’s not jazz or classical music)
Plenty of museums host jazz nights and classical ensembles. But for something a little more unusual, head to Minneapolis. You can attend the annual Rock the Garden concert — not your average string quartet — at the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The Walker has hosted the concert series since 1998. Headliners have included the Jayhawks, Wilco, Chance the Rapper, the Flaming Lips, and Bon Iver. The festival is a family-friendly event, and it’s the perfect way to spend a summer evening.
17. Experience a children’s museum — without the children
You can enjoy all the exhibits and activities of a children’s museum, accompanied by beer and pizza, at the Adult Swim events hosted by the Madison Children’s Museum. The museum reports more than 500 adults “routinely attend these 21-and-up events for the opportunity to play for the evening — crawling, sliding, and dancing their way through the museum.” The parties take place several times a year, each time with a different theme. (Think Science Soiree, Steampunk, Prohibition, and Prom.) At the event, you can also enjoy beer, wine, and pizza.
18. Drink cocktails in the planetarium
Another fun way to experience a museum after dark? You can enjoy cocktails and unlimited planetarium shows at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The themes vary every month and include video games and prom night. But each month, you get full access to the museum exhibits and galleries, plus unlimited sky shows in the planetarium’s three theaters. The museum promises the best view of the Chicago skyline. The event is the perfect place to take a date, your friends, or even your family.
19. Treat your children to a sleepover at the museum
Are your kids dying to spend a night at the museum? You and your children can stay overnight at the Field Museum in Chicago, thanks to the Dozin’ with the Dinos program. You can walk around your favorite natural history exhibits in the dark. (Just be sure to pack a flashlight for everybody.) And the museum offers plenty of activities to keep you busy. Plus, you can take a museum tour led by a scientist. You get to choose where you want to lay your sleeping bag for the night. And in the morning, you eat breakfast before the museum sends you on your way.
20. Live at a science museum
If one night at a natural history museum isn’t enough for you, you’re going to love this unusual option. You can live for a month at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago — at least if the museum continues its Month at the Museum program. The museum pores over submissions from more than 1,000 applicants to select one lucky museum fan to spend a month exploring the museum and getting acquainted with all of its exhibits. It’s the perfect way not only to get a feel for what the museum is like after hours, but also to learn more about the exhibits from the people who helped create them.
21. Feast on food truck fare
If fine art is more your style, you’ll want to head to Texas. You can eat delicious food truck fare, thanks to a delicious pairing the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston calls Fine Art + Food Trucks. That sounds like a special event. But fortunately, the option is available all the time. That’s because some of Houston’s best food trucks park every day right next to the museum’s sculpture garden. You can take a break from enjoying art to grab a snack or your lunch. Or, on weekdays, you can grab your food first and show the admissions desk your receipt to enter the museum from free between noon and 2 p.m. (Once you’re in, you can stay as long as you want, even until closing time.)
22. Photograph some neon signs
Want to create some art instead of just appreciating it? You can take a photography tour at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. The museum contains a 2-acre campus with an outdoor exhibition space, called the Boneyard, with more than 200 neon signs. On a normal day, you can take a tour of the Boneyard. But if you book a photography tour, you get an hour to wander around taking photos with whatever equipment you want to use, including tripods, multiple cameras, and extra lenses.
23. Drink a beer and listen to a lecture
You can bring beer to enjoy when you attend an event, exhibition, reading, or lecture at Machine Project in Los Angeles. (The Echo Park institution’s FAQ page specifically says so.) Machine Project describes itself as “a place for artists to do fun experiments, together with the public, in ways that influence culture.” The organization’s calendar of events and exhibitions is constantly changing. But if something strikes your interest, you’ll definitely want to stop in. As the organization notes, it has hosted everything, including, “vacations for plants, concerts for dentists, and operas for dogs,” in its 15-year history.
24. Listen to music inspired by art
Many museums host musicians from time to time. But how often do you get to listen to music that doesn’t just complement a museum’s art collection but was actually composed in response to it? You can listen to art-inspired contemporary music while visiting exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As part of the museum’s Art & Music concert series, performers and composers celebrate the art in the museum’s collections. Each event is different and offers a great new way to experience the art on display.
25. Walk through a maze in the dark
You can find your way through the pitch-black Tactile Dome — and enjoy live performances, interesting lectures, and hands-on exhibits — at After Dark Thursday Nights at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The performances, lectures, and themes change each week. But if what you’re really looking forward to is the Tactile Dome, here are the details. This interactive exhibit was designed and built by August Coppola (father of actor Nicolas Cage and brother of film director Francis Ford Coppola). As part of the experience, you’ll crawl, bump, and slide your way through its chambers and mazes.