by columnist Madeline Karp

Sometimes I find it hard to muster up the enthusiasm to go to natural history museums. Don’t get me wrong – I love natural history museums, and couldn’t wait for the annual school field trip to the NY Museum of Natural History as a kid – but sometimes, they just feel a little old hat.

Yes, I like dinosaur bones as much as the next girl, but the idea of seeing them again can be slightly less than thrilling. Which is why I had put off going to the Penn Museum in Philadelphia for upwards of 6 months.


Back in December, my family tore an article out of the newspaper for me, detailing how the Penn Museum was celebrating its 150th anniversary, and would be hosting curator-led flashlight tours of the mummies exhibit to celebrate.

Mummies? In the dark?? SIGN ME UP.

I recruited my friend Kristen to hold my hand, in case the mummies got extra creepy at night.

We took the tour, sharing a flashlight and giggling nervously at the idea of seeing dried out dead people in a dark room. Despite the fact that the tour was crowded, and it was sometimes hard to hear the guide, we both came out having had a good experience.

– New Perspective
Like I said, sometimes I have a hard time getting enthusiastic about natural history. But having the same content presented a new way was beyond thrilling. With sight limited, my other four senses heightened, forcing me to experience the exhibit in a completely different way.
Bonus: Kristen had actually been to the exhibit in the dark before; as a freshman at Penn, she attended a social mixer in the museum’s mummy hall, complete with DJ, dance floor and anachronistic toga costumes. Suffice it to say, I was more than a little jealous.

– In His Shoes
I’m all about stepping into history. I find first person, immersive experiences to be extremely informative. So when we were left alone to explore, I rounded a corner and my light beam brushed a sarcophagus. I felt my heart flutter with excitement. “This is totally how Howard Carter felt when he found King Tut, you guys!!” I sang. (No, really. I sang it.) I’ve read his diaries. Now I feel like I’ve lived them, if only for a moment.

– Great Date
More than one couple there was on a date. It’s a totally controlled environment, but something about mummies in the dark is still a little scary. If you’re looking for a date that combines the class of a museum with the fun of a haunted house, look no further.

– Curator Approved
Since the museum curators led the tour, we got the real insider’s perspective. Curators have favorite objects, they know quirky historical details, and sometimes even have adventurous stories about how they procured the objects themselves.

I’m actually really excited to return to the Penn Museum to see the mummies again in the daytime. I’m hoping it will be less crowded and am curious to see how the exhibit may feel different in the light. Will I pick up new details, or will the exhibit revert from magical to mundane? Regardless, the Penn has accomplished something big: I’m totally pumped to go back to the natural history museum!

Have you ever taken a flashlight tour of a museum? What did you think of it? What other kinds of oddball tours could museums offer to freshen up permanent exhibits? Share your stories with me in the comments!