Academy of Natural Sciences

alive and enchanting

In a museum full of dead things, the butterfly garden gets prominent billing: “Alive and Enchanting,” says the banner above the admissions desk.


But the skeletons still fascinate. Pointing and squealing, schoolchildren thunder through the hall of the “Mesozoic Monsters,” as the museum calls them. For millions of Americans under the age of seven or eight, dinosaurs and their relatives occupy the same niche in the imagination that will later be filled by pop stars and Hollywood celebrities.


In a slightly quieter part of the museum, a 3,000-year-old mummy lies half-naked in a replica of a tomb. Here disassembly rather than assembly was required. Small knots of schoolchildren pause before the exhibit long enough to express their bafflement at finding a dead man on display on a floor otherwise devoted to taxidermy mounts.


But one floor down, the cocoons are left unwrapped until they hatch. Here in this newest addition to the museum’s permanent exhibitions, nature is no less of a spectacle than in the more traditional exhibits, but now the visitors are permitted behind the glass.

swallowtail 2

And while we are still discouraged from touching the exhibits, we are given instructions in how to behave should the exhibits happen to touch us: “Just stand still and wait for them to fly off. And watch where you step.”


We were all eyes.

15 Replies to “Academy of Natural Sciences”

  1. I love the shadow of the butterfly on this last photo. Really exciting — I love going to museums. I saw a mummy in London (I think at the British Museum — there are so many in London) — looked a lot like your guy there. But I’ve never gotten the chance to roam through a garden full of butterflies! :-)

  2. I like the last photo very much also. We visited a butterfly house last week as well. It is striking to see the butterflies coming out of their cocoons (as if being born), fluttering around, mating and then dying. Brief glory…

    We explained to my young daughter that caterpillars turn into butteflies. She asked: and what do slugs turn into?

  3. So this is all indoors? Special (in the truest sense = species-specific) food plants are shipped from wherever in the world they are available? The last photo is really great.

  4. When I was in college, my favorite physical anthropology professor took me (a lowly undergraduate) up to his lab to see his collection of Nubian mummies. They had been mummified by the natural processes of the desert. He was doing some research on them. I fantasized about doing research too. I touched one, and I will never forget the feel of their skin against my own.

    Beautiful photographs, dave. I like how you saw the place.

  5. I chime in with the others here! I’ve never been in a butterfly house, how marvellous to experience the alive in a museum of dead stuff! I saw mummies at the Vatican museums, I think, for the first time, a strange but compelling experience. That second photo with the strong pattern against reds and pinks is stunning, like a painting. YOu could print and frame that one.

  6. I love that second photo of the dinosaur — but they’re all wonderful, alone with the writings.
    Natural history museums are fascinating on so many levels. Most still retain some degree of the old “Cabinet of Curiosities” dimension. Dinosaurs, mummies and butterflies all together in their galleries. I find it interesting how we somehow don’t think of specimens as “dead things” so much as “objects”. A few years ago, I spent several sessions helping some friends work on saving a large wet collection of specimens that was being trashed by a university that didn’t want the ongoing maintenance and storage commitment. It seemed quite bizarre that specimens — once live creatures that have been carefully collected, processed, stored and maintained, could just be tossed out like so much trash. Of course, this is happening all over the place. Not long ago, I read of a collection down your way that had been stuffed into the back of some unused rooms in a university and just “rediscovered”. Anyhow, it was interesting to work with a wet specimen collection — topping up each jar full of treasure from some part of the world or the other. A large jar with three Matamata turtles from the Amazon were probably my favourites.

  7. As you might have guessed, that was meant to be “along” and not “alone”.
    Btw, I should probably add that, having learned more about the fate of specimens in some natural history collections, I hold an increasingly dim view of collecting live specimens. I believe this point of view is becoming more widespread in the scientific community, which is probably a very good thing.

  8. But one floor down, the cocoons are left unwrapped until they hatch.
    Nice segue between mummies and butterflies, there.

    Incredible photos, just stunning.

    I’ve suddenly become interested in lepidoptera.

  9. Thanks to everyone for the kind comments about my photos. I should’ve said that I have a few more at my Flickr site, here.

    Gina Marie – I’m glad the post allowed you to recapture a little of that museum-going excitement. That’s part of what I was aiming for. Really, natural history museums say so much about us as a culture, both good and bad; I barely hinted at it here.

    Jonathan – She asked: and what do slugs turn into?
    Perfect! Thanks for that.

    q.r.r. – Yes, exactly. The plants aren’t too impressive yet, but they only started in November. Most if not all the feeding right now seems to be with sugar-water. I don’t know what they do with those that prefer urine and feces.

    Teju – If you say so.

    robin andrea – That’s interesting. Sounds like there might be a poem in there (though of course I have that reaction to a lot of things).

    marja-leena – That was my favorite of all the photos, too. I’m glad you liked it. Mummies are weird, all right: both the making of them (though no more so than our own death rites) and our displaying of them.

    p.b. – Thanks. (Maybe i need to learn to appreciate brightness and cleanliness better.)

    bev – I share your misgivings as well as fascination toward the cabinet-of-curiosities approach to museums. It’s how people in our culture have traditionally related to anture, no doubt about it. I should mention, though, that the most popular part of the museum last Friday was a traveling exhibition called The Scoop on Poop, which had very inventive interactive exhibits, such as a pinball machine-like dung beetle race for two players, or a scale to see how many hours it would take an elephant to excrete your weight in shit. Needless to say, the kids loved it! The one traditional-type artifact there was a dinosaur coprolite that the kids were encouraged to hold (unlike the dinosaur bones downstairs).

    I have heard of collections being discarded as you describe – part of the bottom-line mentality gaining popularity at universities now. Basic taxonomy doesn’t bring in the grants. But it seems like a real crime, analogous to getting rid of books. Which university libraries are also doing, of course.

    angie – Thanks! That’s the best kind of compliment.

  10. But it seems like a real crime, analogous to getting rid of books.

    Yes, that’s how it feels to me. These days, it all seems to be about flash and dazzle — forget about dusty old books and natural history collections. It’s really rather sad, especially when history ends up in the trash bin. I guess what I find absurd about the whole thing is that these collections are irreplaceable and frequently contain specimens that can’t even be found these days. Also, there’s so much potential for using them to study DNA and also such things as the presence of pesticides and other chemicals. I’ve read of work being done with bird feathers, etc… so such things as herbariums, wet collections, bird skins, and similar collections are sort of like time vaults. I’m amazed by the short-sightedness of some of the people controlling out institutions.

  11. Bev, I couldn’t agree more. But I hope you won’t confine these thoughts to this message string. This sounds like an eminently bloggable topic, and one we might try to get some of the big-name science bloggers exercised about, as well.

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