There are few music music venues in Melbourne that have a stage set against a lush, live forest. Even fewer allow guests to mingle with dinosaur bones, observe exotic spiders and watch scorpions turn fluorescent under black light, all while the band is playing.

But that’s the point of Nocturnal. Melbourne Museum’s monthly series of music, performance, talks and art, held on the first Friday of every month, invites punters to explore the museum while enjoying a drink, food and music. And it’s worked.

More than 20,000 punters have come through the museum’s doors since Nocturnal debuted in July 2017 with beloved Melbourne band Dorsal Fins. Since then the wideranging series has hosted some of Australia’s finest and most varied acts, including stars of indie pop (Teeth & Tongue, Totally Mild), electronic (Harvey Sutherland, Wax’o Paradiso), dance-oriented ensembles (NO ZU, Total Giovanni) and hip-hop and R‘n’B (Lossless, Ecca Vandal).

The concept sprang from Museums Victoria CEO Lynley Marshall, who took the job early last year. “She was asking people to rethink the museum,” says Linda Sproul, manager of public programs at Museum Victoria. “We were asking, ‘What are the different things the museum could be in Melbourne’s life?’”

The Museum had dabbled previously with night-time events, but Nocturnal was very much about celebrating the local music scene. That included embracing a diverse array of performers, keeping its doors open until midnight, and offering a state-of-the-art performance experience that includes customised lighting, projections and sound.

The average turnout has ranged from 800 to 1500, which puts Nocturnal in the same range as mid-sized Melbourne venues such as the Forum. “It’s pretty mega, really,” says Sproul. It also invites a crowd unaccustomed to visiting the museum to interact with the space and its exhibits. “Both the audiences and acts have really loved the experience of the space,” says Sproul. “It doesn’t feel like it does during the day.”

Curating diverse live music in a non-traditional space has been on the rise around the city – from Melbourne Zoo’s twilight concerts, to the NGV’s Friday Nights series, to the annual White Night celebrations. Each is putting new audiences in front of local musicians, something Nick Cooper, operations and program manager at Music Victoria, says is a boon to not just the local music community, but Melbourne culture at large.

“As a kid, your parents take you to the museum,” says Cooper. “Then once you get to a certain age, you probably don’t go back until you have kids yourself. There’s this gap in the middle, and Nocturnal does a great job of reactivating that age group.”

The combined diversity and reliability of Nocturnal’s line-ups mean people become fans of the series and space itself, rather than just dropping in to see a favourite act. “Once you’ve gone to your first Nocturnal,” says Cooper, “you feel like you’re part of something special because they’re so well curated.”

Cooper’s personal highlights in the series so far have included fierce post-punk trio Cable Ties, electronic iconoclast Simona Castricum and genre-bending ensemble Billy Davis and the Good Lords. He also singles out this year’s NAIDOC Week program, headlined by Thelma Plum and Mojo Juju. As well as the music performances there were ancillary talks, poetry readings, spoken word and storytelling performances that highlighted the work of female Koorie and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. “They really transformed that space,” says Cooper. “It was a real takeover.”

That kind of full-museum integration is something Nocturnal is looking to do more of, making the event as much about educating people as it is putting on a really good show. “It’s very museum-y,” says Sproul. “But I’m hoping people think of it as one of the most unique live music experiences in Melbourne.”

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Museums Victoria. Nocturnal is held at the Melbourne Museum on the first Friday of every month.