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Meet me at the museum

Go on -- talk all you want and mingle with others at these special summer events hosted by local museums

Something magical happens in museums at night. Nothing quite as lively as presented in the movie "Night at the Museum," where all the exhibits come to life after dark. Maybe it's because it's summer and many museums have extended hours and special summer programs, but things loosen up somehow and the normal hush-hush atmosphere becomes quite frivolous.

MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS

The Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Ave., Boston. 617-267-9300. mfa.org) has created its "SummerFridays" series, which takes the yearlong First Friday party theme and runs with it every week to the end of August. When weather permits, the event is held in the leafy Calderwood Courtyard, where either a live band performs or a DJ spins. There are tapas to nibble and a cash bar, too. If clouds gather, the party is moved inside to the auspicious Koch Gallery.

Dropping by "SummerFridays" is like stepping into a grand house party, where a mix of smartly dressed professionals (ranging from their 20s to 40s and beyond) mingle and chat over cocktails, turning the sedate museum into a hive of club-like activity. One cloudy recent Friday evening, the Koch Gallery was packed to its 400-person capacity, and a long line of people stood outside in the marbled rotunda, waiting to get in.

Over at Bravo, the chic nearby restaurant and bar, the scene was quieter as people relaxed over dinner either inside where a pianist played jazz, or on the patio overlooking the courtyard, which is overseen by a magnificent weeping willow tree that stretches three floors tall. Down in the Galleria Café, oddly, a trio of barflies sat at the bar, staring and silent, like those nighthawks in the diner famously captured in Edward Hopper's iconic painting in the current MFA exhibit upstairs.

"SummerFridays" run from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Entrance is free with general admission: $17; $15 for seniors and students; free for MFA members. All of the galleries are now open until 9:45 p.m., Wednesdays through Fridays (on Wednesdays admission is free after 4 p.m.).

ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM

Thursdays at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (280 The Fenway, Boston. 617-566-1401. gardnermuseum.org) sees the return of the annual summer Neighborhood Nights, or Noches Gratis del Barrio as it's also called. Now in its sixth year, this program promotes "global neighborhood" awareness through cultural arts and activities. Each week features a different theme that blends live music, storytelling, and other performances. The family-friendly activities are geared for children, teens, and adults to enjoy together.

On July 26, "Welcome to Starlit Summer" will feature stories of good fortune, instruction on the Chinese zodiac, and stargazing through a telescope. There will be live jazz from the Lori Dow Band. The Aug. 9 event is dubbed "One Swingin' Night" and will feature a musical scavenger hunt to find famous musicians and the opportunity to make your own musical instruments. The beat heats up with Latin music from Mango Blue.

Neighborhood Nights happen Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. There is no admission charge and admission to the museum during Neighborhood Nights is also free.

MUSEUM OF SCIENCE

Over at the Museum of Science one recent Friday night, the frenetic scene was quite different than what you'd find at the MFA on a Friday. Families were taking in the scientific and natural wonders of the green and blue wings, where children ran excitedly between one exhibit and another. In the Science in the Park enclosure, kids demonstrated to perplexed-looking parents how to accomplish what seemed to them puzzling tasks. Nearby a couple had slipped into the mock Apollo spaceship module. Another couple was playing "pinball" with the celestial mechanics demonstration, amazed at the motion of the silver balls they launched.

Whether its evolution or electricity, the museum takes on a less school-trip vibe at night. The Red Wing, where the theaters are housed, stays open after 9 p.m. (check with the museum for show times). The new Jane Goodall film, "Wild Chimpanzees," is a big draw in the Omni Theater and somewhat at odds with the captive creatures in their solitary cages in the live-animal exhibit in the basement.

The Red Wing also has a food-court-style setup centered around Puck's Café, which stays open until 10 p.m. for cocktails, wine, beer, and casual food -- pastas, salads, and grilled entrees -- and adds a live jazz trio .

Through Labor Day, the museum's exhibit halls are open until 9 p.m. on Fridays and until 7 p.m. through the week. Entrance to the exhibit halls ranges from $14 to $17, with access to the Omni theater, Planetarium, Laser, 3D Cinema, or Butterfly Garden charged extra. (Rates are discounted after 6 p.m.)

INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART

There's dancing under the stars at "You Dance Fridays," a new summer event that began last week at the Institute of Contemporary Art (100 Northern Ave., Boston. 617-478-3100. icaboston.org). It continues every Friday until Aug. 3 on the ICA's outdoor patio, near the Water Café (bad weather moves the event indoors), and offers museum visitors the chance to brush up on their dance moves or learn a new dance style from professional performers and teachers. Last week's beginner's hip-hop lesson featured Boston's veteran break-dancing troupe the Floorlords performing with DJ Leanrock. Tomorrow there's tango taught by Fernanda Cajide and Dario DaSilva, followed by a performance from Bernardo Monk and Mass Tango. The hourlong lessons are free with museum admission ($12 , $10 seniors and college students, free for members and those under age 18 ) and start at 6 p.m. Then, from 7-8:30, there's live music and dancers performing, with plenty of floor space for the audience to run through their new skills.

Every Thursday, the ICA's "Harborwalk Sounds" series brings Berklee College of Music students and alumni to the boardwalk patio to perform free concerts from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Museum admission is free Thursday nights.

DECORDOVA MUSEUM

AND SCULPTURE PARK

One of the most delightful ways to spend an artful summer evening is strolling through the beautiful garden at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park (51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln. 781-259-8355. decordova.org). Throughout August on select evenings, the "Stay Tuned!" program lets you appreciate the art-filled grounds of this contemporary art museum. The gardens brim with artwork placed among the natural landscape for maximum and often surprising effect. "Stay Tuned!" includes a guided tour, which is followed by a boxed picnic dinner, and live music. On Aug. 2, jazz duo Matt Richard and Jim Robitaille will entertain guests; then on Aug. 9, local acoustic pop artists the Farewells will perform.

Of course, add the normal admission charge and enjoy the interior exhibits beforehand. Who would want to miss Fitchburg-based artist Jeff Warmouth's innovative "Spudnik" installation? Warmouth utilizes potatoes and tinfoil to present potatonauts in space. There's a stunning display of inspiring, innovative art to enjoy, including Nina Levy's "Big Baby" and "Headlong" sculptures on the roof -- the former a disturbing giant baby and the latter a female nude holding her head aloft from her body. Both are visible from the grounds and add to the Sculpture Park's wondrous display.

The "Stay Tuned!" tour starts at 6:30 p.m. and costs $35 and $25 for DeCordova members. Museum admission is $9, $6 for students and seniors.

Playing house

It was once a private residence, but now the Gropius House (68 Baker Bridge Road, Lincoln. 781-259-8098. historicnewengland.org) is a veritable museum to

modernism . It was designed by Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus design school and one of the most influential architects of the 20th century. He built this modest family home in 1938 while he was a professor at Harvard University.

On the first and third Friday of the month, April through October, there are special evening tours showcasing Gropius's innovative treatment of interior and exterior

lighting . The evening tour includes dessert and coffee served on the patio overlooking the natural "garden," or inside if the weather is bad. The house is wonderfully

preserved , with the family's furnishings -- many designed by Marcel Breuer and made in the Bauhaus workshops -- kept in place. There's even one of Mrs. Gropius's elegant dresses hanging in the bedroom. Josef Albers, Joan Miró, and Henry Moore gave artworks as personal gifts.

Through Sept. 21, the tour is from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Admission is $22 and $15 for Historic New England members. Advance registration is required. -- L.L.

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