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!

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