Night At

Our Museum

It doesn't take Ben Stiller to know there's something eerie about the Maryland Science Center after closing time

December 26, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Reporter

Jermaine Hash insists he doesn't mind being alone inside a closed museum all night. Neither does Allen Cummings, but he allows that, "You do hear sounds in here."

"Here" is the Inner Harbor's Maryland Science Center. It's well past midnight on a recent weekday evening, and the two men are describing what it's like to hold one of Baltimore's eeriest jobs: night watchman in an empty, cavernous museum.

After all, the night watchmen at New York's Museum of Natural History have to watch over bounding dinosaurs, talking statues, living-history dioramas and restless mummies.

At least they do in Night at the Museum, the new movie starring Ben Stiller as a security guard who, every night, is forced to contend with everything from a bounding Tyrannosaurus to a bubble-gum-chewing Easter Island idol.

Things must get just as lively after dark at the Inner Harbor as they do in Central Park. Maybe you just need a knowledgeable guide and a little imagination.

And so Cummings takes us on a tour of the science center after dark, while Hash stays behind to watch the monitors at the main security desk. With only his flashlight to lead us, and with our every step echoing through the deserted halls, the building takes on an added dimension, one that would do Rod Serling's old Twilight Zone TV series proud. Remember that series' somber, creepy intro, promising viewers a world "whose only boundaries are that of imagination"?

Well, welcome to The Science Center Zone.

We begin on the third floor, a land populated by lots of places for kids to do things. Cummings' flashlight illuminates all sorts of stuff that must be fascinating during the day: exhibits where kids can learn about the Chesapeake Bay and the importance of marsh grasses, and see critters that live in and along the bay's waters. Nice, but not especially impressive at night. Can we move on to the cool stuff now?

And so we step toward the stairs, only to be greeted by a distinct lumbering sound. Something's moving, as though it were unfolding, maybe getting up from a crouching position. There's a distinct clicking sound, like two sticks tapping against each other. Hearts stop beating for a moment, eyes dart left and right. Could the bay itself be coming to life?

Sort of. The commotion is being made by a huge mechanical crab that has been freaking visitors out for generations. For some, a giant crustacean might conjure up images of '50s sci-fi flicks, where atomic tests in remote desert locales lead to marauding hordes of oversized bugs - movies like Them, Tarantula or The Deadly Mantis!

Cummings just laughs and points to the floor, outing the sensor area that, when entered, makes the crab do its dance. "That thing got me the first couple times," he says with a smile (or what one assumes is a smile, as it is pretty dark in here), noting the crab is one of a handful of exhibits that are never turned off. "But I'm used to it now."

Relieved but wary, we head down to the second floor. Cummings promises that more surprises lie in store.

The dark seems only natural for the second-floor space exhibits; after all, there's more dark in outer space than light. And there's something deliciously creepy about seeing all the museum's planetlike orbs and astronomical paraphernalia with the lights out. Especially cool is the huge round ball suspended from the second-floor ceiling. During the day, it serves as the screen for the center's new Science on a Sphere exhibit, a sort-of cinema-in-the-round that allows visitors to watch films about the environment on an Earth-shaped screen. But even with the lights turned off, the giant orb still gives off a faint glow, like some radioactive crystal ball.

Adding to the otherworldly aura: A couple of spacesuits, the kind worn by Baltimore-born shuttle astronauts Robert Curbeam and Tom Jones, hang from the wall. Catch them with just the briefest beam of light, as Cummings did while scanning the floor with his flashlight, and it's not hard to imagine yourself in your favorite sci-fi movie, preparing to visit another planet or do battle with Darth Vader.

Leaving the space exhibits, we head to the other side of the building, to Your Body: The Inside Story. During the day, visitors can hear gurgles, beating hearts (Edgar Allan Poe would have loved this place) and other sounds apropos of what seems like the world's biggest body cavity.

But at night, with everything off - what could happen?

"Hey, you, come over here!" a disembodied voice shouts, causing the uninitiated night visitor to jump a good six inches into the air and whirl around to face ... nothing. There's nobody around, save for Cummings, once again smiling like the cat who just scared the bejesus out of the canary.

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