Audubon Insectarium In New Orleans
What is it about these creatures? In the new $25 million Audubon Insectarium, which opened here in June, you can watch Formosan termites eat through a wooden skyline of New Orleans (as if this city didn’t have enough problems), stick your head into a transparent dome in a kitchen closet swarming with giant cockroaches and watch dung beetles plow their way through a mound of waste. And then you can engage in the museum’s most brilliant interactivity by joining in the line of eager visitors prepared to munch on a handful of crunchy Cajun-fried crickets or scoop up some wax-worm stir fry.
“Gross!” your inner adolescent is likely to shout with a smiling shudder. But visitors of all ages to the Bug Appétit buffet, situated just behind the museum’s Tiny Termite Café, keep lining up for seconds. And for every sight that inspires shocked amazement, there is another where sheer wonder wins out. O.K., it’s fascinating to learn that a cockroach can survive for weeks without its head, or that millipedes secrete a foul-smelling liquid that you can touch, or that one of every four species on this planet is a form of beetle. But you can also watch a colony of leaf-cutter ants at work. They carry their jaw-torn green bounty into their maze of tunnels where, in one chamber open for inspection, the workers cultivate a gray fungus found nowhere else in nature; that fungus feeds the entire colony.
All this is to say that a visit to the 23,000-square-foot Insectarium forces a confrontation with a segment of the animal kingdom before which Homo sapiens might nearly be humbled. This museum, billed as the first major new institution to open in post-Katrina New Orleans, has been created in a section of the United States Custom House by the Audubon Nature Institute, a nonprofit group that also runs a local aquarium, park and zoo (and has no relationship to the National Audubon Society). By rights, though, this shouldn’t be called an Insectarium at all, since it incorporates arthropods (900,000 known species that encompass insects, spiders, centipedes, millipedes and crustaceans) and annelids (segmented worms).
But the name Arthropoditarium has less commercial lure, and at any rate, if scientists, as the museum points out, have their own system of classification, in popular culture we have ours. In this case, every animal seen – from a mounted 19-inch-long stick insect from the Malay Peninsula to a live black atlas beetle that crawls inside a transparent table in the museum café, from spectacular iridescent butterflies that freely flutter in an indoor Japanese garden to the remarkable Southeast Asian mantis that looks like a dead leaf in the forest – seems to share a peculiar region of our consciousness and makes a visit here at once bracing, unsettling and amusing. On one recent weekday there appeared to be little difference between the attentiveness of parents and the children accompanying them. (Some 2,000 visitors have come each weekend day since the institution’s opening.)
In fact, the museum’s comic animated film about insects – a mock television awards show, screened in a theater complete with vibrating seats and puffs of air – might have inspired a good number of screams and laughs with its special effects, but it was almost superfluous, given the sensations offered by the live bugs on display. It even seemed surprising that though there are insect museums in Philadelphia and New Jersey – and a major insectarium in Montreal – smartly done spectacles like this one have not caught on in other metropolitan areas.
Maybe these creatures are just too strange. Though they dominate the planet’s biomass (and make up, we are told, 90 percent of the world’s species), they seem to violate all common presuppositions about life forms. This makes them at once frightening and enticing. The most extreme opposites are on display. The filament legs of mantises or the wings of butterflies are slight wisps of organic matter; the exoskeletons of beetles are like brutish sheets of armor. Bugs seem extraordinary vulnerable – a footstep can kill hundreds of ants – and astoundingly resilient: try eliminating termites or roaches. Some survive for only days, though larvae of one wood-boring beetle have lived for 51 years, while fossils display insects that existed a hundred million years ago. Moreover, many of these animals, lacking even the most rudimentary signs of reason, coalesce into stupefyingly intelligent hives and colonies.
We look at these creatures the way children must view all animal life. What weirdness is this? How bizarre are these habits and specimens! The museum’s Hall of Fame Gallery features beetles pinned in fanciful arrays, but the artifice works: you gape at their elaborate coloration and the delicacy that undercuts their apparent savageness. Even some dung beetles (which have been known to clear away 80 percent of the cow manure on Texas farms) have sheen that makes them far more appealing than their habitat.
One area here, the Underground Gallery, is meant to shrink the visitor to bug size: you step onto dark, spongy loam in an underground passage, and see lunging spiders, glaring worms, strange beetles mounted on granules of soil. But there is no need for this simulation to get a sense of these creatures. Just imagine an entomological ecoterrorist freeing these captives from their glass cases, so swarms of termites, spiders, millipedes, flying insects and biting ants slither, creep and soar freely through these rooms, like the roaches roaming through the kitchen cabinet display.
Is it any wonder that science fiction has turned such creatures into monsters with humans at their mercy? What hope does our proud individuality have when confronted with the mysterious strengths and collusive powers of these organisms?
Maybe that’s why an attitude of domination accompanies the Insectarium’s appreciation. Can you imagine eating roasted lion at a zoo or filleted dolphin at an aquarium? But here the admired creatures are served in elaborate dips and sautéed dishes. Photographs on the cafeteria wall display delicacies more familiar in non-Western countries: deep-fried giant waterbugs from northern Thailand, water beetles marinated in ginger and soy sauce from the Guangzhou Province in China. But chocolate chirp cookies (with crickets) and dragonflies sautéed with mushrooms can be sampled a few yards away. Even in the regular section of the café, tabletops are transparent display cases: if you shun arthropods for lunch, you can eat more typical animal-based dishes while watching a giant beetle crawl underneath your meal.
The threat – the fear, the danger, the dread – is part of the point here too. An exhibit about the insects of New Orleans discusses the splattered bugs that coat cars in the mating months of May and September, and explains how the city’s history was scarred by diseases carried by uncontrolled mosquitoes. Some bugs strain all affections: in the United States, one roach is called German; in Germany it is called Russian; in Russia it is called Polish. (And in Poland, one wonders?)
The Termite Gallery is meant to frighten: the Formosan subterranean termite causes $1 billion in damage a year and has been the object of a federally financed war since 1998. It is no wonder, too, that the pest-control company Terminix donated $2 million to the Insectarium; other pest-control sponsors include BASF/Termidor and Dow AgroSciences. They want to encourage a love of bugs, a Terminix spokesman has suggested, but one that accompanies a healthy respect for their dangers and an interest in eliminating them where they shouldn’t be.
This makes the Insectarium an unusual tribute, because the double visions of respect and fear, amazement and shock, fascination and disgust, are woven throughout the exhibits; indeed, throughout human encounters with these creatures. And whatever the museum’s weaknesses – the Louisiana swamp gallery was a bit miasmic, the butterfly room a bit underpopulated, and the informative wall texts a bit too brief – on leaving, the world seemed larger and more astonishing than it had before. I was almost ready to return to try the sauté of the day.