Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Living Collection

Title: Owl Butterfly
Year: 2014
Material: Large, colorful wings, long legs and antennae, compound eyes.
Creator: Nature
Collection: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

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As a young girl, I was enamored with butterflies. I chased them around the neighborhood, used every color in my crayon box to create my own butterfly illustrations, and could recite Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar by heart. These tiny creatures were like real-life fairies. Not only was I mesmerized by their beauty, I was also drawn to their transformative nature. While I often felt more like an awkward, fuzzy little caterpillar, I held onto the hope that I too could develop my own sort of colorful wings. This week, as I entered the Butterflies! Exhibit at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, these childhood memories came fluttering back.

On any given day, Butterflies! exhibits a living collection of 60 to 150 butterflies that represent 20 to 40 unique species. The museum receives new butterflies each week, from rainforests and secondary forests across the world. Butterflies live for one to two weeks, so the collection is in constant flux. 

Do I spy a butterfly or a snake?!
Compared to the flashy oranges, blues, reds and bold patterns of some other species, the Owl Butterfly is a bit of a Plain Jane. However, its earthy brown, black, and yellow coloration and muted markings serve a vital purpose: protection. See that that round, marking on its wing that looks like an eye? That’s called an eyespot. In its natural habitat (rainforests of Mexico, Central and South America), this eyespot might cause an owl butterfly to be mistaken for a much larger creature. For instance, a lizard (a known predator) in search of a meal might see the eyespot and think it is looking at the head of a snake, and quickly retreat. Phew! The Owl Butterfly lives another day!

Eyes? Nope, just colorations on the back of an owl's head.
The butterfly’s eyespot is a form of automimicry, where one part of a body looks like, or visually mimics another part. Not only can automimicry protect creatures from predators, these visual imitations may also serve to attract or communicate with mates. Many other creatures use camouflage or automimcry. See that owl photo? That’s actually the back of the owl’s head.

If you’ve ever been to a zoo or a botanical garden, you probably know that living collections are “displayed” differently than inanimate objects. They are often placed within a context or defined space, but their behavior and positioning within that space is constantly changing. Butterflies can be found flapping their wings around the room, feasting on bananas at feeding stations, perched on plants, and resting on walls and the floor (watch your step!).

Descriptive text and signage is used sparingly within the Butterflies! exhibit, and primarily serves to
Example of exhibit text
encourage visitors to carefully explore their surroundings. Notice here how this example poses questions and uses playful language. During my visit, I was also approached by a staff person, who provided additional interpretation by pointing out different butterfly species throughout the space, as well as other creatures, including a poisonous dart frog (don’t worry, it was enclosed in an aquarium).

Corridor outside of Butterflies!
Additional objects beyond the environmentally controlled walls of this living collection help visitors to deepen their understanding and appreciation for butterflies.  A corridor outside of exhibit displays photographs, diagrams and detailed text. Here, visitors can learn what and how butterflies eat, where they live, how they migrate, and other fun facts. Not all of the information is light, however. Reading on, they can read about how butterflies play an important role as pollinators, the serious threats butterfly populations face, and how visitors can and should help to protect and promote these vital creatures. Nearby in the Art of Science gallery is Pinned: Insect Art, Insect Science, a collection of intricately framed butterflies, beetles and other bugs by artist Christopher Marley. While I did spot several living butterflies, I expect that some days are better than others for studying these living creatures up-close. Their numbers fluctuate (there can be anywhere from 60-120 in the exhibit at time), and I would guess that butterflies have the occaisional terrible-horrible-no good-very bad-days like the rest of us. Also, most of the ones I did see had their wings closed, or where high along the walls. Pinned allows visits to better see and appreciate their intricate beauty.

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Interested in learning more about and being able to identify specific butterfly species? It might be useful to pick up a guide like the Smithsonian Handbook: Butterflies and Moths. To learn more about the important role butterflies play in pollination, one could explore the online resources provided by the ButterflyConservation Initiative. What's more, his memorandum from President Obama on the importance of promoting the health of pollinators signifies that butterflies aren't just important to scientists, artists, insect lovers, and people (like me) who chased them as a child; these creatures are part of a larger national (and international) conversation.

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People who dislike or fear butterflies would not be interested in this living collection. In fact, one of my classmates refused to enter the exhibit because she “doesn’t do well with butterflies.” Apparently,  lepidopterophobia, or the fear of butterflies and moths, is a relatively common phobia. There are several online communities dedicated to this shared fear, including In addition to a fear or aversion, some animal/insect/environmental activists may not support the fact that ANSP has these creatures on display. In their opposing point of view, these butterflies are being held captive in an artificial environment purely for human entertainment. They belong in their natural habitat.

Earlier this year I read the novel Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver. Monarch butterflies have a starring role in the book, which speaks to the issues of climate change, and how it impacts ecosystems and biodiversity. To further engage visitors with the butterflies, I would create a reading group event around Flight Behavior. The group would visit ANSP, attend a lecture by a local climate change expert (ideally a scientist from ANSP or Drexel University), and discuss their responses to the book.

Over the years, my love of living collections has grown from discovering insects in my yard to working in gardens and exploring National Parks. In fact, my interest in these types of "objects," was a driving force in my desire to pursue a master's degree in Museum Education.  So, it seems appropriate that this is where I conclude this semester's blog. It's been a great journey. Thanks for considering these objects with me!

Monday, December 1, 2014


Title: MADE IN
Year: 2012
Material: Wood, metal, canvas, ink
Creator: Stephen Hayes
Collection: Collection of the Artist, currently on display at the African American Museum in Philadelphia

MADE IN, 2012
This week, I'd like to start with a visual exercise. Look closely at the two images below (MADE IN, to the left, and The Brookes Ship to the right).

The Brookes Ship, 1789

What similarities and differences do you notice? They're both images of boats, yes. One is a diagram, while another appears to be a photograph of a 3-dimensional object. One was created in 1789, the other 223 years later. Removed from their context, it might be a challenge to understand how these images relate (besides being boats), or what they represent. Interpreted within the context of Cash Crop, however, their powerful connection and important message becomes hauntingly clear.

Let's start with the diagram. While conducting image research for a printmaking class at the Savanna College of Art and Design (SCAD), artist Stephen Hayes came across an image diagramming the Brooks Ship, a boat that operated within the transatlantic slave trade from about 1781 to 1806. During its 25 year lifespan, the ship carried over 5000 Africans. This diagram of the ship was published in 1789 by a member of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in England. It depicts how the ship was designed to stowe 454 slaves, exactly the legal limit of slaves a ship of its size could transport. Prior to a law enacting this limit in 1788, the Brooks had crammed up to 609 slaves onto its lower decks at a time. You can learn more about the history of the ship, here.

Hayes' Brooks Diagram
The image and story of the Brooks ship stuck with Hayes, and it became a central motif for his MFA thesis at SCAD and the exhibition, Cash Crop was born.

Having already traveled to institutions in North Carolina and Georgia, the exhibit is currently on display at The African American Museum in Philadelphia. Put simply, Cash Crop examines how people and goods are imported and exported. Not only does the artist look at the Transatlantic slave trade, but also addresses the modern injustices of sweatshops and unfair labor. As the introductory text panels states (in an informal museum voice), the exhibit links “the millions who were transported in slave ships like cargo in years past and the millions today who are confined to factories, like extensions of machines.” Throughout the exhibit, interpretations of the Brooks Ship appear in cement casts, prints and drawings, and etched into a quilt panels made of fiber board.

The artist with his piece entitled, Gluttony

 Detail of wall of wooden boxes with cast cement ships

Now, let's return to the image of the 3-dimensional boat entitled MADE IN. In a few pieces, including this one, the artist steps away from the Brooks ship motif.  Instead of referencing a historical object, MADE IN highlights a more contemporary item that visitors will recognize. At first glance, you probably missed them, but The sails of the ship are composed of simple white labels, each printed with the name of a country. See now?

Detail of MADE IN's sails
Stitched into nearly every item of clothing, stamped onto the bottom of home goods, printed on consumer packaging, today, product labels are ubiquitous. Sure, they inform consumers where items were produced, but Hayes challenges viewers to consider ideas like, 'Who makes these tags, and the products they label?' and 'Is this ship, seemingly bloated with cargo, full of slaves or products made by the enslaved?' In some sense, here are a bunch of little flags waving in protest, waving to wake us up to the realities of present-day labor conditions. 

Still, the beautiful curve of the wooden ship, and the gracefulness of its sails can be disarming; at a distance, this object doesn't immediately evoke the realities of sweatshop labor. However, within the context of the exhibit, it is difficult to ignore the darker narrative this vessel, and its sails implies.

Close-up of figures
Hayes' life-sized figures
Nearby stand 15, startlingly realistic life-sized cement figures. Each is shackled by steel chains, and bound to a wooden shipping pallet that resembles a small boat or coffin. These statues symbolize the 15 million African people forced into the slave trade between 1540 and 1850. While these objects reference the past, the statues seem to represent modern day sweatshop workers, as well. For me, these figures deepened my ability to interpret MADE IN, for here, I saw the people behind the product tags.

Anyone with an interest in contemporary social justice issues such as race, gender, politics, economics, consumerism, poverty, and human trafficking may find MADE IN to be an important and provocative piece. Artistic-minded individuals may also appreciate it as a finely-crafted piece of woodworking.

Viewers strictly interested a historical narrative about the Transatlantic slave trade might not be interested in this MADE IN. Some individuals may not wish to discuss contemporary issues of human trafficking and labor conditions. Perhaps they do not wish to confront their connection to the problem, find the matter too distressing, or may simply be apathetic to issues that they feel are out of their control.

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An alternate view of this exhibit might argue that sweatshops are merely a reality of contemporary economics; it's just supplying the products that consumers demand. In this narrative, the laborers are stripped of their humanity in an effort to allow the consumer to maintain his or her innocence.

In order to better understand “Made In” it might be helpful to explore international labor laws, as well as the history of cash crops. One could learn more about human trafficking through CNN's The Freedom Project or through books like Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight, by investigative journalist Stephanie Hepburn. 

It would also be interesting to learn about the ways the Brooks (or Brookes, as it is spelled in the UK) Ship has been interpreted by other artists. The live recreation pictured in the photo below, which took place at the York Castle Museum. Pretty intense, right? Read more about it, and other related exhibits, here.
 Recreation at the York Castle Museum

Anti-Slavery Broadside
As text panel about the Brooks ship notes, the ship’s diagram was used in broadsides and posters throughout London, Philadelphia, and New York. The graphic of the ship was distributed on posters and broadsides in shocked and awakened the general public to the horrors of the slave trade. To further engage visitors with this object, I would create a workshop where visitors would learn more about the historical significance of broadsides, and then create their own posters of protest. After studying MADE IN and several samples of broadsides, visitors would find the tags on their clothing. Identifying the manufacturer and/or country where their personal items were made, they would conduct research about that company and/or the labor conditions of that country using online tools like Their broadside would be based on these findings. 

I challenge you to do your own research--where and by whom are your clothes made? Are there people being harmed or exploited in one or more steps along the process? Are there changes you can and should make as a consumer to support a more just system of supply and demand?