Night at the Museum, Part 2: Living Aboard the USS Hornet

Ever since we saw Night at the Museum, we’ve dreamt of being able to spend a night in our favorite museums. And now, we can! Many museums are experimenting with holding fun sleepovers in their spaces.

We’re taking an in-depth look at these innovative museum experiences. Our 3-part series features interviews with museums holding awesome sleepovers. We discuss what each sleepovers include, how visitors are responding, and best practices for museums who want to develop this experience.

Our second interview features Chris Miller, Live-Aboard Program Director for the USS Hornet Museum. During their Family Live-Aboard Experience, visitors spend an entire night on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. They experience life aboard a floating city during World War II, exploring everything from the Captain’s bridge to the engine room. Along the way, they discover the incredible stories of those who lived on board and some of its most famous passengers — including the first men to walk on the moon!

Read on to find out how the USS Hornet developed their sleepover program, and Chris’s advice for starting your own.

MH: What is your role in the USS Hornet Museum and your experience of developing and managing the Live-Aboard program?

I serve as the Live-Aboard program Director aboard the USS Hornet Museum and I just celebrated my 5th anniversary on the Ship last month! It’s been an incredible experience working here — just driving up the pier each morning and seeing this majestic, historic vessel is inspiring. I have the pleasure of overseeing an incredibly dedicated, knowledgeable, and engaging crew who welcome our guests aboard and help bring the Ship to life at night.

MH: Tell us a bit about the Live-Aboard Experience. What can participants expect from their night at onboard the USS Hornet?

Live-Aboard guests at the USS Hornet Museum get to go behind the scenes and experience a ‘day in the life’ of a sailor on this enormous floating city. They come aboard and learn nautical terms and how to maneuver around the Ship safely. Then they get to eat dinner in the Enlisted Crew’s Mess Hall before touring the Ship throughout the evening, visiting areas such as the Captain’s Bridge, the Catapult Machinery Room, and even get locked in the Brig! After tours, they have the opportunity to watch a historical documentary or participate in ghost stories in our haunted chain room before bedding down and camping out in the original crew’s bunks. At reveille guests enjoy a hot breakfast, a ride in our ‘Star Tours’ style Flight Simulator, and a patriotic closing ceremony where we thank our veterans and first responders.

MH: What was the inspiration for doing sleepovers aboard the USS Hornet?

Our Live-Aboard program was inspired roughly 15 years ago by the demand of local Boy and Girl Scouts who were eager for an onboard camping experience. While our program has grown and now serves a diverse audience, Scouts remain our most enthusiastic and loyal participants, and we’ve designed a special commemorative patch and collectible rockers to celebrate their ongoing partnership with us.

MH: How would sleepovers enhance the visitor’s experience of the ship? Do you think it provides a deeper engagement than a normal tour?

Our Museum’s daytime tours are fantastic. Our Education offerings are awesome. Our Live-Aboard program takes it all to another level with hands on experiences led by crew members who craft unforgettable events over the course of the program. Our overnight guests leave with memorable bonding experience, and feel that they’ve become honorary crew members of this majestic vessel.

MH: What was your greatest challenge in implementing this program? How did you address it?

Our greatest challenges are our location and in getting word out about our Museum’s many impressive offerings. Driving through Alameda Point, visitors might think they’ve wandered onto the set of The Walking Dead (which is actually pretty cool in and of itself), but once they pull into the parking lot and come aboard, they’re always amazed by the enormous scale of the USS Hornet and the wonderful exhibits and programming we offer.

We host exciting and educational events like Living Ship Days and patriotic holiday celebrations throughout the year, and they’ve definitely helped to raised our profile. The truth is that being peacefully moored in Alameda puts us centrally placed to serve the entire Bay Area. Once visitors find us, they often book other events and overnights, and purchase memberships to the museum as well and bring their friends with them on return visits. We’ve enjoyed fantastic reviews and benefited greatly from ‘word of mouth’ advertising.

Successful engagement begins with passionate staff.

MH: How do you bring the level of engagement found during overnight stays to the everyday experience of the USS Hornet?

We’re extremely lucky to have scores of deeply invested Docents among our crew who enthusiastically share the history and sea stories of the USS Hornet with our daytime visitors during tours of the many interesting locations aboard the Ship. Many of those Docents are veterans themselves, some even having served as crew or pilots aboard Hornet while she was still in service during WWII, Vietnam, and during the Apollo 11 and 12 recovery missions. Our guests benefit greatly from interacting with our Docents, and carry with them the spirit of Hornet long after they depart the Ship.

MH: How did you address the challenge of having attendees staying onboard all night — with things like security, the historical integrity of the ship, and personal safety of your attendees?

Our museum is an especially unique experience for visitors because while other museums have a facility that houses their artifacts, our entire museum IS an artifact! This provides our guests with a unique opportunity to experience the science and history of her time first-hand, and can also create challenges for our museum and security staff, as well.

To protect both our guests and the Ship and her exhibits, we have many safety policies and protocols in place to address every possible scenario. For instance, during our overnight programs we staff a 24-hour Security Night Watch which discourages after-hours roaming, and also provides service if guests need any assistance during the night. We’re also very explicit in listing which items are appropriate to bring aboard with you, and which are not–sleeping bags, toothbrushes, flashlights are all welcome! Alcohol, weapons, and the like are not.

MH: How have your attendees responded? Do you find that the Live-Aboard program attracts new audiences who might not otherwise have visited the museum?

Our overnight guest response has been overwhelmingly positive! A great portion of our guests are repeat visitors coming to us through youth groups and scouting organizations. We’ve also done some promotions throughout the Bay Area that brought us to the attention of a wide new audience who otherwise wouldn’t have known our Museum existed. A recurring theme in our reviews and guest evaluations is “How did I not know about this place before?!”

MH: Do you plan on expanding the program to include individuals or non-family groups?

We actually already do have a great program that caters to individuals! We advertise one Friday a month as a “Family/Small Group Live-Aboard” program, and we suspend our usual booking-minimum so that individual adults and families can participate, too.

MH: What advice would you give to museums that are looking to develop similar sleepover programs? How can they increase engagement and ensure that attendees leave having experienced a deeper level of engagement?

Our museum is uniquely able to support educational overnight programming, since we have compartments full of hundreds of bunks from the original crew’s quarters. When it comes down to it, though, overnight campers aren’t coming just to ‘sleep’ in the museum–they’re coming to experience a behind the scenes, hands on event, and the most important aspect to providing that experience is the people you have working to run the program on site. We’re fortunate enough to have deeply invested, highly motivated staff to lead our guest through the Live-Aboard program from start to finish, and to tour our guests through the Ship to interpret the Hornet’s story in exciting, inspiring terms.

Thank you to Chris from the USS Hornet Museum for talking with us and sharing fresh new ideas.

Do you work for a museum? Do you have a program that is successfully engaging new audiences? We’d love to hear about it! Send us a quick email at info@museumhack.com or read more about our workshops, presentations, and museum consulting work.


Originally published at museumhack.com on December 23, 2015.

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