All night at the museum

It seems appropriate to write about this event whilst I'm still experiencing the strangely altered physical state induced by lack of sleep and intense stimulation.

For context (I want you to feel my exhaustion!) I got up at 5.30am on Friday morning and travelled to Cardiff for a day of talks organised by Play ARK at Chapter Arts Centre. My Friday night sleep was patchy and disturbed by drunk revellers in my budget hotel, but still I awoke at 7.30am and proceeded to navigate the Cardiff buses with my trolley suitcase and stuffed rucksack in the unseasonable heat of the October morning. A few hours of games preceeded another journey – this time to University – where I had a few unusual hours in the company of Freshers. So, I arrived at the Museum Collection Centre doubting my ability to stay awake until 5am.

There was quite a crowd of writers, artists and bloggers ready to stare the small hours in the eye, which was heartening and unexpected. Our workshop started in earnest with a guided tour of the centre – effectively a huge repository of Birmingham City Council's extensive collection of artefacts not currently on display. The warehouse is a spectacle in itself, with its joyfully haphazard juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects. In one aisle, a Giant Spider Crab in a glass case sat on a shelf above a carousel horse, nestled next to a bread slicing machine, opposite a wooden cabinet and near an ornate eagle-carved bracket, large enough to hold up shelves for giants. In hindsight, I wish I'd concentrated more on the unique opportunity to fabricate elaborate connections that could link these objects that found themselves proximate. Yet I wouldn't want to suggest it was all jumble sale – certain collections had definitely been curated – vintage cars, costume, archaic weapons – and the small collections room (where I found the object of my evening's attention) was themed throughout.

A instruction to select an object of focus and three carefully planned writing exercises followed, and before I knew it, we were less than an hour from our appointed hour of release. Tiredness had merely stood at the gates looking in, felt as a slight ache in my limbs, whilst my imagination was seized by a tiny hand-powered Singer sewing machine from the 1870s.

The adventure, however, didn't end at 5am. My companion and I were kindly offered a lift to New Street (one sure sign that the wokshop happened in the usually dead hours is my inability to remember anyone's name) along with a writer who would be catching my train north. Our surprise at the locked doors of the station became embarrassment as we realised our collective error in being unaware of both the scheduled opening of the station and of the time of the first train home. The station doors were home to a few loiterers – all but one clearly drunk. As we sat pondering our next move (with a reluctance to join the fray) one chap clumsily hoisted himself from his lolling position and tried to get the attention of a cleaning attendant, and his swaying body and clown-like gait induced the kind of giggles that only come after a sleepless night.
Our driver was our saviour, and she dropped us on campus, where we could spend the next three hours if not comfortable enough to sleep, at least warm and safe. After leaving halls to wait for a taxi, I spent the next ninety minutes continuing to share the adventure with my new companion, before she alighted the train at her stop. Despite (or because of) our sleep-deprived state, the conversation was memorable and fascinating. Once alone, I started to feel blessed – smiling at strangers, strangers smiling back… a peculiar exhaulted state that's hard to explain.

All in all, a remarkable night. The centre, worthy of the attention of a few hours of curiosity without doubt, had an exclusive allure and indefinable ambience at midnight. Exciting though the setting and the activities were, what really made it remarkable was that infectious sense of adventure that turns strangers into firm friends.
When he eventually flopped into bed as the birds commenced their dawn chorus, my friend described the event as one that would make a great story in the re-telling, and I think the satisfaction of not just experiencing something like that, but knowing how special it is, can carry anyone through sleeplessness.

The workshop was the first event of Birmingham Book Festival's 2011 programme.

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