A Night at the Museum: The Rubin’s “Dream-Over” in Photos

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They came dressed in their pajamas. Dozens of them. Last Saturday night, about 90 people entered the Rubin Museum of Art — a young museum devoted to exploring ancient Tibetan art, Buddhist philosophy, and modern scientific research — to sleep and dream, and have their dreams explained by psychoanalysts after they woke. Participants slept underneath works of art specifically chosen for them. They were told to bring their own bedding and toiletries. While some sought personal insight with the potential for future enlightenment, others simply wanted something unusual to do over the weekend.

A giant slumber party for adults, which organizers titled a “Dream-Over”, The Rubin’s event, which was the first of its kind, encouraged attendees to stop observing and start participating — albeit through slumber.

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

Shortly after 9:00pm, participants began to arrive. Most were women. They were immediately escorted to a reserved space on one of the museum’s six floors and introduced to the painting or statute they’d be spending the night with. They were told to get acquainted. “In a way, this is a blind date with a piece of art,” said Dawn Eshelman, programming manager at the Rubin, located in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

Some meditated, some took notes, some looked and wondered. Weeks prior, participants had signed a waiver that required them to disclose important life occurrences and their favorite color. Event coordinators then used this information to match each participant with a work that both parties hoped would bring about the most vivid dreaming. Despite the palpable excitement, the museum was quiet. The general attitude remained reverent amongst the abundance of strangers in nightgowns and sleeping bags.

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

Marlie McGovern (pictured above) is a yoga instructor. She heard about the “Dream-Over” from her brother, who also attended, and knew immediately that she wanted to participate. “I’ve always been fascinated by dreams,” she said. “If you’re pushing them aside, you might be missing out on a part of yourself that could be really interesting.”

On her waiver, Marlie wrote that one of the most important moments in her life was when she decided to leave her family in Arkansas for New York City at the age of 23. That and the first time she read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. As a result, Marlie was paired with a stupa, vajra, and crucifix (pictured below). She was placed on the 5th floor, which stored the exhibit Embodying the Holy.

“I’m not taking it super seriously,” she added. “How often do you get to spend a night at the museum?”

Marlie’s favorite color is red, and she slept on an inflatable mattress.

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

After listening to a story of the Buddha’s conception shortly after his mother, Queen Maya, dreamt of a white elephant thrusting its tusks into her right side, and a brief lecture on the meaning of dreams from Professor Edward Nersessian of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, it was time for small-group discussion accompanied by snacks. This is when participants started asking questions. Are dreams prophetic? Should we write down our dreams? Can we force ourselves to dream? How many people actually remember their dreams? How much of dream interpretation is about discovering truth as opposed to creating it?

One participant mentioned that she dreams only in black and white. “It’s going to take years to understand that one,” said another woman dressed in heart-patterned PJs.

A bell chimed, signaling that it was time for bed.

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

A sitarist performed at the foot of the spiral staircase. The ambient sounds from his instrument permeated each floor as every participant was read a unique bedtime story or poem that correlated to their assigned artwork.

Zippers zipped and blankets rustled. People fell asleep.

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

And they dreamed.

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

The history of dream interpretation goes back to the beginning of humanity. Ancient people believed dreams were prophetic messages from the gods, a means of divine communication that often required decoding by experts. In the book of Genesis, Joseph had this gift. He used it to get out of jail and rise to prominence in Egypt by offering Pharaoh an accurate explanation of one particular dream that saved the nation from famine.

In 1899, Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, significantly altering the way modern societies viewed these late-night, involuntary visions. The focus was now on the self, and the hidden wishes and anxieties we carried with us throughout the day.

Others are skeptical that dreams mean anything at all. They dismiss dream analysis as creative nonsense, a wish in itself. In 1977, two Harvard psychiatrists, John Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, proposed that dreams had more to do with the brain resetting itself for the morning and neurons firing unrelated information than any coherent, however cryptic, messages rising to the surface.

Marlie (pictured below) lay curled on her mattress. She slept with a pencil and notebook nearby to capture whatever experiences she might have while unconscious throughout the night.

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

Just before 6:00am, participants were woken by women and men with name tags. They were psychoanalysts and psychoanalysts-in-training, who were there to help participants understand their dreams. In the early morning, dreamers and experts whispered to each other. Some participants had trouble recalling what they dreamed about. Others talked at length about snakes and rivers and friends, describing clear narratives with a beginning, middle, and end. Some had trouble dreaming, given the unsaid pressure to dream.

“I had dream performance anxiety,” said Marlie, who ended up dreaming more about sleeping on a mattress in a museum than anything else. “There was also some pretty significant snoring happening in my vicinity,” she said with a laugh.

She did, however, receive a strong image from her childhood home, which related to her favorite color, and was overall glad that she participated in the event.

A traditional Tibetan breakfast was served, and the museum opened a couple hours later.

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

Photo credit: Aaron Colussi

Other participants are currently posting their experiences on the Rubin’s Facebook page.

The “Dream-Over” was part of the Rubin’s annual Brainwave series, which Eshelman described as a look into “the science of consciousness, where Buddhism and science crossover.” Other activities include movies, workshops, and lectures by various artists and academics. The theme this year is dreams.