Image: Kate McGroarty
M. Spencer Green  /  AP
Kate McGroarty greets a young visitor Nov. 1 as she spends time working in her "cube" during 30 days of living at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. As the winner of the "Month at the Museum" contest, one of her main jobs is to use social networking sites to tell the public about her experience. Her month ends Nov. 18.
By
updated 11/16/2010 9:47:40 AM ET 2010-11-16T14:47:40

Nights at the museum aren't always as quiet as you'd think. There are parties and corporate events. Sometimes, dozens of kids and their parents are allowed in for one big, fairly sleepless sleepover.

But then the place can go from busy and loud to shadowy and still, almost in an instant. Some people might be spooked.

But not Kate McGroarty.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

She grabs her pillow and the quilt her mom made her and heads into the depths of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry in search of an unusual place to lay her head for the night. It's all part of the adventure — one of the big perks of winning the chance to live in the museum for an entire month.

She has, in her time here, slept in a bunk in a World War II era German submarine. She has somehow managed to make a bed on the museum's huge hamster wheel.

"People always want to know, 'Are you scared?'" she says. "Have you seen any ghosts?" She raises an eyebrow and grins.

The 24-year-old Minnesotan doesn't really believe in spooks — though on this particular night, she's walking at a healthy clip through one of the darker hallways that contains an exhibit of old circus props.

Why mess with clowns at 11:30 at night, right?

Tonight, she's headed to the "Smart Home," an eco-friendly abode on the museum grounds that has everything from heated bamboo floors and electricity provided by solar and wind power to shower tiles made from recycled wine bottles.

She walks up to the master bedroom and spreads the quilt on the bed — "a little piece of home" in this home away from home. A security guard checks in with her once she's moved in. He makes sure all the doors are locked.

"Sleep well," he says as he heads back to the museum's main buildings.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

All is quiet, aside from the buzz of cars on nearby Lakeshore Drive.

A grand experiment
At the start, McGroarty had little clue what she was getting herself into. Nobody did, really.

This has been a grand experiment even for museum staffers who hatched the plan. They were looking for a new way to market the venerable Chicago institution, and maybe — just maybe — to shed an image that even the museum's CEO acknowledges had gotten a little stodgy.

One of the world's largest science museums, with nearly 14 acres of exhibits, the Museum of Science and Industry is probably best known as home to the Apollo 8 command module, the U-boat submarine, various planes and a train, and a coal mine that has been a permanent exhibit since the museum first opened in 1933.

"People often tell me how they visited the museum when they were children," says David Mosena, the museum's president and CEO. "I always ask them, 'So when was the last time you visited?'"

Too often, he wasn't getting the answer he wanted. Too few had heard about new exhibits, from the Smart Home to "Science Storms," which features a towering simulated tornado. He and his staff wanted to be edgier to attract a younger audience. They wanted to take a chance.

So this summer, they offered the public a chance to take up residence amid the exhibits, and a $10,000 prize.

'A science rock star'
Five finalists were chosen from about 1,500 applicants. They were screened, poked and prodded. References and backgrounds were checked thoroughly. They even took a test to evaluate their psychological mettle.

McGroarty passed easily. And it helped that as an actress and writer, she communicated well.

The Chicago press and her growing number of fans swarmed around her when she moved in on Oct. 20. She was, said Rob Gallas, the museum's chief marketing officer, "a rock star."

"Yeah, a science rock star," said McGroarty, smiling.

McGroarty has become a human exhibit, on display for the whole world to see, thanks to the frequent updates she posts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Still, she did not exactly leap at the opportunity to do this. As a kid, she never clicked with science. It took a good 24 hours of thinking about it before she put together her application, a 60-second video and a 500-word essay.

A graduate of Northwestern University's theater program, she has been an actor since she was 10 years old. More recently, though, she's focused on writing plays and directing. Now living on Chicago's North Side, she works side jobs to pay the rent, though she spent some time teaching at a school in the suburbs.

It was the educational part of the museum project that intrigued her — the chance to use her talents to get people excited about learning.

It also fit well with her high-energy personality and the natural curiosity she's had since she was very young, say her parents, who still live in Roseville, Minn., where she grew up.

"This is the perfect job for her," says her mother, Mary Sue McGroarty.

Life on the inside
But it's also intense.

Because the museum keeps their daughter so busy, even her parents find themselves having to keep up with her on the social networking sites, just like everyone else.

McGroarty tries to post two blog entries and at least four tweets a day.

"Catnaps are my best friend" she wrote in a tweet, hinting at the fatigue she was already feeling on Day 5. Those are the times she sneaks off to her "nest," as she calls it, two small rooms with a couch, a table, a dresser and a bed, where she usually sleeps and also can escape public view when the museum is open.

Her days are full — and long.

Up early, she usually starts by blogging and responding to messages from her followers. She then often accompanies schoolchildren to science "learning labs," and visits exhibits.

She has done a handstand in the simulated tornado. She has enjoyed breakfast with astronaut Jim Lovell, who gave her a personal tour of the Apollo 8 module.

"Jim Lovell — he's my new crush," she says, clasping a photo of him tightly.

When friends visit, she steals whatever time she can to wander the museum with them, and that's when she most sounds like a kid in a candy store: "Oooooh, no one's on it," she squeals, running with a college pal to the hamster wheel and hopping on it for a quick spin.

Otherwise, a good part of her day is spent at the "cube," her glass office on the museum's main floor. It's where she does much of her blogging — and where she greets museum guests, some who've come to the museum specifically to meet her.

When she's not there, her younger fans often leave her handwritten notes on scraps of paper.

"You are so cool," one of the notes reads. "I wish I was u."

Another says, "Talk about us on the news & I'll give you gum. Maybe."

She is most emotional when she talks about the young people who are following her every move online and who write to tell her about it. That's why she's here. That's when she knows she's done a good job.

"I think I'm most afraid of not living up to people's expectations," she said when she moved in.

But so far, that doesn't seem to be a problem.

Demands of the job
Not that it's all been perfect. McGroarty jokes that she's growing tired of wearing the orange T-shirts that have become her uniform, each one emblazoned with the number of the days she's spent in the museum. (She leaves the museum on Thursday.)

Beyond the schedule, her biggest challenge has been dealing with the crush of media and some of their demands. She has, for instance, refused when a few TV journalists have asked her to set up shots (one wanted to pretend that the crew documented an overnight stay when they really hadn't).

She's also simply asked that, at least at times, the video cameras go away because their very presence changes what's going on. Kids like to mug for the camera.

McGroarty wants a more natural, "organic" experience.

  1. Most popular

She takes the job very seriously, and sometimes it wears her down. A good night's sleep does wonders, though.

She emerges from her Smart Home bedroom rested and smiling and immediately climbs the stairs to the house's outdoor balcony to shoot photos and some video for her blog.

She also takes a moment to watch the sun rise, a rare treat at a place where she's often enclosed with no windows.

As she sits down to breakfast — oatmeal, fresh fruit and coffee — the Smart Home's automated lights turn on.

"Welcome home," a woman's recorded voice says.

Kate laughs and shakes her head. Later, she grabs her quilt and other belongings, walks back to drop them at her "nest" and heads to her cube for yet another day.

The museum is waking up, too.

Circus music plays in that formerly dark hallway. More recorded voices can be heard coming from the "You! The Experience" exhibit, which includes the hamster wheel and a popular interactive dance demonstration. "You think you can dance?" can be heard, over and over and over.

At 9:30 a.m., the coal mine whistle blows, and the Museum of Science and Industry opens for business, as a worker unloads boxes of lights for the many trees that make up the "Christmas Around the World" exhibit.

Though Halloween is barely over, McGroarty has the Yuletide spirit. She has described her month in the museum as "so many kinds of Christmas."

The thing is, she really means it.

She's also finding out that she really does love science, after all.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Chicago style

loading photos...
  1. Windy City high

    A view of the Chicago skyline with Lake Michigan in the background from atop the Sears Tower Skydeck observation tower. Completed in 1973, the Sears Tower is the tallest building in the U.S. and a popular location for tourists. (Tim Boyle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Artsy avenue

    Two lions guard the entrance to The Art Institute of Chicago along Michigan Avenue. The institute was founded in 1879 as both a museum and school. (Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Rinse and spit

    Austin Hilsmier, then 3, from Chicago, looks back at his mom as he plays in Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Monumental view

    Visitors to Chicago's Millennium Park pass by the Millennium Monument. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A cloud's reflection

    Tourists gather under Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" sculpture in Millennium Park. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Running the shore

    A man jogs along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Great day for a stroll

    A woman pushes a baby buggy through a small playground nestled in downtown Chicago's Grant Park. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Bonding time

    A male trumpeter swan at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo takes his newly hatched offspring into the swan pond for a swim. (Greg Neise / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Botanic Garden

    The Chicago Botanic Garden features 23 beautiful gardens and three native habitats set on 385 acres of rolling hills and tranquil lakes. The garden is open year-round. (CNSCVB.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Aquamarine awe

    Visitors check out the three-million gallon Oceanarium exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium. The Oceanarium is the largest indoor marine mammal facility in the world and one of the few aquariums in North America to display Pacific white-sided dolphins and beluga whales. Cutting edge innovations introduced by the Shedd over the years has helped change the experience for visitors at aquariums around the country. (Nam Y. Huh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Preserving history

    The Evanston Historical Society, at the Charles Gates Dawes House in Evanston, Illinois. The chateauesque mansion of former U.S. vice-president Charles Gates Dawes, is three-and-a- half stories, has 25 rooms, six bedrooms, seven bathrooms and 11 fireplaces. This national historic landmark's exhibits focus on Evanston history. (CNSCVB.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Academic aerial

    Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. Founded in 1851, this renowned educational institution is rich in history and architecture. (CNSCVB.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cycling heaven

    Two cyclists pedal along Lake Michigan in Chicago, during the early morning hours. Chicago has earned the reputation as a bike friendly city. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Video: Woman spent month in Chicago museum

  1. Closed captioning of: Woman spent month in Chicago museum

    >> thank you.

    >>> now an update on the real-life version of a night at the museum . 29 days ago, kate mcgordy entered chicago's museum of science and sindustry. she's been living in the museum since we spoke with her. she joins us now via skype. this will be your last night, ka kate . you look good for a woman who's been living in a museum. how do you feel?

    >> oh, well, thank you.

    >> how is it going? how did it go?

    >> better than i ever could have imagined. this has been the best month of my life.

    >> the best month of your life? in what way? you don't have to deal with many people? the isolation gave you time to know yourself ?

    >> it's the opposite. i dealt with many people every day. i mean, i don't know when i'm going to be able to pack so many amazing things in such a short period of time. i've walked on airplane wings, i have watched the sun rise from the roof, i've done --

    >> okay.

    >> you had breakfast with jim lovell .

    >> if yyou did?

    >> it was pretty cool.

    >> do you miss your own apartment, you know, being able to walk around perhaps your own neighborhood at all?

    >> i do miss my friends. and my cell phone.

    >> but it was worth it because you walked away -- this was a contest and you won a $10,000 prize. you're completely certain that it was worth it.

    >> oh, yes. i'm also walking away with some of the best stories i'll have for my whole life.

    >> give me one lasting memory besides the two you just named, especially with jim lovell . that's pretty cool.

    >> you know, it's -- i don't think another time in my life it will happen that i just walk around and people know who i am. like just, you know, an hour ago i was at an event and all of these little 8-year-old school girls came up and wanted to talk about the experience and about the month. it was really fun.

    >> what's next for you? did you get a job? did you land a job? you're there 29 days. surely you made some contacts.

    >> well, i'm pretty hard to contact right now. so if there are any job offers, i don't know about them. the first thing on my schedule is a nap.

    >> a nap. it seems that you'd have plenty of time to sleep. as you pointed out, you were all over the place. it's a pretty cool story. we're happy that we were able to follow up with you. best of luck with what you pursue after this. thank you, kate .

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments