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Midnight at the museum

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Quiet contemplation is possible at the Mead Art Museum.

By Globe Staff 

AMHERST — Peace and quiet get harder and harder to come by, and getting peace and quiet standing in the company of a Monet is really hard to come by. Unless you own one.

Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum does: “Morning on the Seine, Giverny,” from 1897. Five nights a week during the academic year, the Mead also offers peace and quiet. Sundays through Thursdays, the museum is open until midnight, a schedule it’s had since 2007.

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Earlier this month, Caitlin Vanderberg, a junior double major in art history and Spanish, was giving a tour to Michael Meigs, a senior from Ithaca, N.Y. “This is my first time here at night; it’s nice,” he said. “It’s a lot quieter than the library.”

Vanderberg, who’s interning at the museum this semester, called the late hours “really great,” adding that “students stay up so late, anyway.” Although a student can request that any of the museum’s 19,000 works be brought to the Mead’s study room for close inspection, she said that the opportunity for uninterrupted study of works on display late at night is even better.

A favorite painting of Vanderberg’s is Robert Henri’s full-length oil “Salome Dancer.” She relishes the opportunity to examine it “when there’s no one else around. There’s a real intimacy to the experience.”

The Mead seems to be the only US art museum to be open so late so many nights, though occasional late hours aren’t unknown elsewhere. The third Friday of the month the Dallas Museum of Art has Late Nights, when it’s open until midnight. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art stayed open until midnight last month for the final weekend of its record-breaking fashion exhibition, “China: Through the Looking Glass.”

A number of science and history museums have special late-night programs. The Museum of Science offers Overnights at the Museum. The American Museum of Natural History, in New York, has adult sleepovers, while the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, in Washington, has sleepovers for children.

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Those events were inspired by the success of the three “Night at the Museum” films. The key to the films is the idea of magical things happening behind closed doors in galleries after the lights are turned off. A different kind of magic happens when there’s art involved and the doors don’t close.

“It’s what makes museums great, that direct connection with objects that can only happen in a museum,” Mead director David Little said in a recent telephone interview, and with late-night viewing “that experience is much more powerful.”

The Mead encourages late-night visitors. At the end of the semester, extra tables and snacks are put out for students preparing for exams. During the rest of the term, there are evening events, including curator talks, artist visits, and poetry slams. There’s even been a docent tour led by a campus improv troupe with made-up descriptions of the art. “It was hilarious,” said Little’s predecessor, Elizabeth Barker, in a telephone interview.

Barker, who’s now Stanford Calderwood director of the Boston Athenaeum, instituted the late-night schedule. From her office, near the museum entrance, she noticed visitors regularly trying to get in after closing. “I’d run to the front door to let them in and walk them around,” Barker said.

She began to reconsider the hours. The Mead is at the center of campus, making it a reasonable late-night destination for students. It already had Wi-Fi. Its manageable size meant that the security staff didn’t need beefing up. Barker began asking students about later hours for the Mead. “They looked at me like this foreign alien person,” Barker said. “I said I wasn’t thinking about 6 o’clock. I mean midnight. ‘Oh, we’d do that.’ ”

The hours were a success. According to Little, some 20-30 percent of attendees now come after 5 o’clock, though the numbers rapidly decrease as the hour approaches midnight. “After 10:30, if we get more than five people, that would be a good night,” said Aaron Dowd, a Mead security officer. “Only the real diehards stay until the last minute, though there can be a few of those.”

The new hours had an unanticipated consequence. “We went through light bulbs like no tomorrow,” Barker laughed. “We forgot about the lights staying on longer.”

It’s not just students who visit the Mead at night. Dinner and a movie for Amherst residents and visitors? Barker noted that a less expensive night out (the Mead doesn’t charge admission) has been “dinner and then come to the museum.”

Still, the Mead’s primary focus is Amherst undergraduates, and its extended schedule suits them especially well. “Students’ hours are very different from those of normal human beings,” Little said with a knowing chuckle, “so this is perfect for them.” He also pointed out that the museum opens at 9 a.m., though that extended hour seems of less note to students.

The schedule “opens up a lot of options,” said Vanja Malloy, the Mead’s curator of American art. “Being on a campus, there are always conflicts — sports, classes, symposia. Having the museum open later makes for a bigger crowd.”

It also appeals to a more discriminating crowd, Malloy said. “This is not sterile, as many study spaces are. It’s a wonderful place to get lost in. It’s late at night, it’s peaceful. I’ve heard from students who come here on dates — not that students ‘date’ anymore!”

Zoe Vayer, a senior from New York who’s a double major in environmental history and studio art, has a work-study job at the Mead as a lobby attendant. She said she’s seen the late hours make unexpected converts to the art-museum experience.

“I’m friends with some guys on the football team. One of them said to me, ‘I’m an economics major. Why would I want to go to an art museum?’ But after coming here to study at night, he liked it. ‘It has a good ambience,’ he said.”


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@
globe.com
.