Murder mysteries, spiders and dinosaurs delight kids out after dark, writes Alex Tully.
"What's that?" one of my sons whispered as the figure of a man appeared out of the darkness. He was dressed in an army uniform and standing by an anti-aircraft gun. We held our breath and watched him intently. Was he a dummy or was he real?
"Stand at attention, Private!" a voice boomed out of the shadows from behind us. I nearly jumped out of my skin, but my elder son obediently stood up straight with his hands by his sides.
No, we weren't at a military school, we were taking part in a Summer Nights at the Museum event and the sergeant was about to take us through a gas-mask drill in case the enemy dropped mustard gas on Auckland.
We don't live in Auckland, but whenever we visit the city we check what's on at Auckland Museum because there is usually something great for families.
This particular session began outside the museum with a battle between armour-clad knights. Although the boys were not allowed to join in the battle, the knights did let us try on their helmets and chainmail and wield a sword or two afterwards.
The specially made replica equipment weighed so much that, despite their enthusiasm, my boys could only suit up for a very short time.
Inside, the theme was "Dangerous and Deadly", so with intrepid adventurer Pennsylvania Smith to help point us in the right direction we went off in search of the next gruesome activity.
Even though I'm sure 100 or more children and adults had poured into the museum when they reopened the entrance doors for us after closing time, the darkened galleries seemed very empty of life and a bit spooky.
It got even more scary when we came across the mysterious Madame Gaoler lurking in the shadows, who told us rather more than we wanted to know about historical tools of torture.
The Mad Hatter was sleeping by the elephant when we discovered him (I thought it was supposed to be the Dormouse who slept a lot). But we had to forgive him when we heard his woeful tale of how he had been driven crazy as a result of mercury poisoning from the felt hats he had made.
Just around the corner, in among the Polynesian canoes, the mighty warrior Tama Toa stood in front of the museum's marae twirling traditional Maori weapons.
The next floor was lit by a faint red glow coming from a volcano.
"Allo, allo!" came a strange call as we peered nervously round the corner.
The voice belonged to crazy French scientist Professor La Va, who was busy cooking up a volcanic rock using one of Mother Nature's own recipes.
I think my favourite activities for the night were having a giant Avondale spider crawl up my arm while learning all about the creepy crawlies that live in New Zealand from expert Brian Lawton.
My younger son's favourite was definitely Basil the Dinosaur. And his face just about split in two from grinning when he was chosen to pat the giant creature. But he had to look out for the Maiasaur's huge tail, which could have knocked him over if Basil had become cross.
And then we were back in the Atrium where we had started. There the boys chatted to clueless detective Dick Sharp and explored the Poisoners Exhibition for clues about who killed scientist Felix Splicer and how they did it.
Hope they didn't learn too much ...
The next Summer Nights at the Museum session will be held in September. The programme for the Easter School Holidays includes:
* A 200th birthday party for Sir George Grey, New Zealand's most famous Governor, including a treasure hunt. Many of the treasures Sir George collected are hidden throughout the Museum and the beautiful and brave Maxxie von Riksen is waiting for other intrepid explorers to put on a pith helmet and help her solve the clues, tackle the tasks and escape the pitfalls to search for prizes. The cost is $5 and there will be sessions every weekday from April 9-20 at 10.30am, 11.30am, 1pm and 2pm. Suitable for ages six and up.
* Sessions with Sensational Survivors author Sandra Morris, who will teach drawing and recording techniques for keeping a nature journal, and fellow author Nina Rycroft, who will show how to illustrate your very own picture book. Weird & Wonderful Picture Books costs $15 and involves two-day workshops on Monday and Tuesday mornings on April 9-10 and 16-17. Suitable for children aged eight years and over.
* Keeping A Nature Journal costs $20 and runs on Saturday, April 14 and 21 from 1-5pm. Suitable for children aged eight years and over.
Further information: See aucklandmuseum.com.
Alex Tully made her own way to Auckland Museum.