30 nights at the museum

By Brianna Wellen

Greeted by roaring applause, Chicagoan Kate McGroarty, 24, wheels her suitcase filled with 30 days’ worth of supplies down a symbolic red carpet to receive the keys and all-access pass to the Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive. Despite camera flashes and crowds following her every move, McGroarty doesn’t shy away. She revels in her first moments as the museum’s new resident and self-proclaimed science rock star.

Three months after receiving more than 1,500 entries from around the world, the MSI selected McGroarty as the winner of its “Month at the Museum” contest. A museum panel narrowed down the applicants based on a 60-second video, 500 word essay, unique personal interests and natural curiosity. McGroarty’s theater background helped her pass these criteria and gain a spot as a top five finalist. From there, public voting brought her the victory.

McGroarty moved in on Oct. 20 to begin her 30-day adventure exploring every facet of the museum. She’ll have free rein to go behind the scenes of exhibits, explore the building and interact with everyone who works there or visits. At the end of her stay, she will receive a $10,000 prize.

To ensure the public can keep up with McGroarty’s journey, the museum provided her with a computer, a digital camera and an iPad. Throughout her stay she’ll blog and post her experiences on Facebook and Twitter. By the end of the 30 days, the museum hopes to show how being completely immersed in a world of science can change someone.

“We heard from several people who had stories of one day transforming their lives,” said Beth Boston, public relations manager for the MSI. “We thought about it for a while … what would 30 days do to someone versus just that one-day experience? How could that transform someone?”

From the second she set foot into her temporary living quarters, McGroarty was handed a scheduled itinerary. It allows her to be involved in all aspects of the museum’s exhibits, learning labs and other activities with scheduled time to stay in her office, a glass cube set up with all the comforts of home where museum visitors can check in and see how the experience is going.

“My life is usually really busy, so I can’t imagine this will be much different,” McGroarty said. “I’m kind of an always-ready-for-everything kind of person. I was born ready.”

While the office will serve as McGroarty’s public quarters, a private bedroom and bathroom area are available to her during her stay. The exhibit won’t be like a human zoo, said Boston. In the private area,McGroarty will keep her personal belongings from home to help support her the month she is there.

Along with essential living items, she brought a stack of favorite books and plays, her guitar and something to represent each of her four immediate family members: a quilt from her mom, photographs taken by her sister, a book from her brother and a letter written by her dad.

McGroarty didn’t have to pack many clothes. She received a T-shirt for every day she spends in the museum. Each shirt reads “Kate,” and the number of the day on her back.

She won’t spend much time outside so she didn’t pack sweaters, but that’s not to say she won’t be leaving the museum. Along with her in-house activities, she’ll go to local schools to share her experience and will attend a Chicago Blackhawks game.

“It’s definitely not a static experience where she is going to be in one place,” Boston said. “She’s going to be roaming around. Once she moves in [and] gets the lay of the land, she can make suggestions about what she wants to do or take suggestions from people who write in.”

As McGroarty lives in the museum, it’s an educational tool for her as well as the public and area schools.

Pamela Miller brought in her class from the Latin School of Chicago to be part of the experience and encouraged her students to keep track of McGroarty through her blog, news reports and in-person visits.

“We’re excited to know she’ll be able to come out and bring the community in to see all the new exhibits,” Miller said.

While she is completely plugged into the community and accesible to museum goers, McGroarty will be without personal e-mail access and cell phone use.

The hardest part of the experience, according to her, will be missing family and friends. They’ve been supportive so far, and she anticipates they’ll visit to keep her spirits up. Her coworkers and employers have been behind her every step of the way; she took a leave of absence for the experience.

Entering this unprecedented adventure, McGroarty is leaving her mind open to everything she can possibly explore in every nook and cranny of the museum throughout the 30 days, she said. McGroarty wants her experience to be something special, not only for her and the museum, but everyone closely tracking her journey.

“I think I’m most afraid of not living up to people’s expectations,” McGroarty said. “That’s something I just kind of have to let go of because no one’s ever done this before, and I’m just going to have to do my best. That’s all I can do.”

To check in on Kate McGroarty’s “Month at the Museum,” visit MonthattheMuseum.org or stop by her cube at the Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive. Follow her on Twitter (Twitter.com/msikate) and on Facebook (Facebook.com/msikate).