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Dream On: A Rubin Museum Overnight

Credit: The Rubin

By Bobbie Leigh

“It’s such a zany, New Yorky, bizarre, fun, unique thing to do,” says clinical psychologist William K. Braun.  So it’s no surprise on a rainy Saturday night in December, a group of people carrying huge bags and backpacks lined up in front of a dimly built building on 7th Avenue and 17th street.  Yet at 8 pm when the doors of the Rubin Museum opened, they surge forward as ebullient as kids boarding the bus to sleep away camp for the first time.

After checking coat and shoes, everyone was given directions to a sleeping spot where they would camp out for the night and perhaps mine their dreamy revelries for clues and meanings. Thus began their 13-hour adventure.

The “Dreamers” previously had been mailed detailed instructions about the museum sleep over: eat dinner beforehand, arrive in pajamas, robe, and slippers, and bring your own “comfy” bedding.   Cruising through the galleries while the Dreamers were settling in on various gallery floors, it was apparent that comfy bedding ranged from king-size blow-up mattresses for both couples and individuals to flowered duvets, piles of  pillows, and simply  a yoga mat and blanket to cushion the hard, cold floors.

The Dreamers were a select group, the first 100 adults who responded to the museum’s website announcing the date of this year’s Dream-Over.  It was sold out within 25 minutes, according to the museum’s Head of Programs Dawn Eshelman, who welcomed everyone  in a navy and white kimono.  After the Dreamers climbed the Rubin’s spectacular spiral stairway (originally designed by   Andree Putnam) they settled in at their assigned sleeping spots.  Several couples had so much bedtime luggage they looked like they were planning a semester in Kathmandu.

Credit: The Rubin

All the Dreamers had filled out a questionnaire with three questions beforehand:

Why do you want to spend a night at the Rubin?; What are the three most important events in your life?;  To what color do you resonate most strongly? Eshelman says that motivations for the Dream-Over vary.  “Some Dreamers are devout Buddhists while others like the novelty of a museum slumber party.”

According to the questionnaire responses, a sleeping spot in front of a specific artwork is specifically chosen for each visitor. “We (the museum docents) get a sense of each person from their answers and use our intuition and knowledge of the collection to pair each Dreamer with an art work,” says Eshelman.

After setting up sleeping spots, the Dreamers in slippers, bathrobes, and pajamas (one couple in matching black and white penguin pjs) gathered in the auditorium for a brief discussion about the differences  and similarities  between Buddhist and Freudian views of dreams.  The two speakers were  Dr. Braun and Khenpo Lama Perma Wangdak, a Tibetan teacher. Khenpo is the founder of the Palden Sakya Centers which offer courses in Tibetan Buddhist studies and meditation.  Both speakers emphasized that dreams are a “vehicle for development, an unconscious state where you make your unconscious conscious.”

After a short group meditation, the Dreamers headed for a snack of mandarins and nuts in the museum’s café, followed by small group discussions  led by a docent or psychologist. This was the highlight of the overnight.   Perhaps it was the “safe atmosphere” or the feeling of being part of a group all searching for ways to understand the role of dreams in their lives that led to a sympathetic group dynamic.  The Dreamers shared intimate, recurring and weird dreams.  A kind of sympathetic bonding took place among them, many expressing searches for clues to their inner lives by attempting to interpret their dreams.  As Braun emphasized, dreams are a mystery, a state of the mind that is less known to us adding that  “ you can work on something in your dreaming life that bothers you in your waking one.”

At around 11, some dreamers, eager to tuck themselves in and prepare for the night, padded up the stairs in their slippers and settled in.  Others meditated or engaged with their artwork, while waiting for a docent to arrive with a bedtime story.  A couple of night owls hung around chatting in the café which was open all night.  Still others took advantage of having the entire museum collection at their disposal and roamed every floor, studying the exhibitions.  One main attraction was the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room. Another high point was the Henri Cartier Bresson exhibition, “India in Full Frame.”

Credit: The Rubin

Once tucked in, a docent arrived and sat on the floor in the dark and read the Dreamer a short bedtime story written just for him or her. Some stories were mysterious, unfathomable. Perhaps they were meant to prompt dreams.  Lights out were never really lights out, but sleep masks were provided as well as ear plugs.  The atmosphere was serene.  Dreamers were especially considerate of each other, tip toeing to the bathrooms which are on every other floor, taking every precaution possible not to wake up sleepers.

Some people slept, some dreamed, some wondered why they couldn’t sleep or dream.  Around 6 am, “Dream Gatherers” sat quietly in the still darkened spaces at the Dreamers’   “bed side”  to listen to their  dreams or perhaps ask what was going on in their lives that prevented them from dreaming.  All the Dream Gatherers — psychology students, psychologists, therapists — were chosen and trained by Braun to participate in this exercise.

Credit: The Rubin

Bells rang at seven am. The Dream-Over ended with a breakfast of croissants, muffins, fruit, teas and coffee, followed by a final group meeting.  Dreams were shared, laughed at, deplored, and interpreted.  Although Braun hears dreams every day in his office, what intrigued him was he never hears from a patient about a dream “at the particular moment when someone wakes up.”   Braun admired the way each dreamer was so open and yet so vulnerable.  He says: “It’s what keeps me going back year after year.”

The Rubin focuses on the art and culture of the Himalayas and neighboring regions; 150 West 17th Street; rubinmuseum.org.


Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques

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  1. December 22, 2017 at 7:26 pm — Reply

    Hello Bobbie,
    Wonderful and enticing article and event, made me want to fly from London to New York just for the dream sleep over. Very clearly a happening one will remember and cherish. My years of Tibetan dream teachings have made this time zone as vivid as my daytime hours. One continuum. This Rubin Museum experience of multiple dream consciousness is a brilliant concept. Wonder how many people were dreaming the same dream from different points of view.
    Thank you.
    With love from London and Italy,

  2. geri
    January 1, 2018 at 11:13 am — Reply

    A wonderful article about a fascinating concept. It makes me want to try it and, even more, to hear all the individual experiences. It would make a great short story collection, a la Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio!

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