A little bit about the Insectarium:
Like it’s neighboring Aquarium and partnering Zoo, the Audubon Insectarium’s mission is simply stated in the tagline of the Audubon Nature Institute: Celebrating the Wonders of Nature. Housed downtown on Canal Street in the US Customs House, the Audubon Insectarium has been bringing some of the world’s smallest animals to center stage since 2008. Through displays, information panels, fossils, live specimens, a butterfly garden, interactive games, and a multisensory theater, the Insectarium hopes to call public attention to these often overlooked, but ecologically imperative animals.
My job description:
As a volunteer at the Insectarium, I am encouraged to participate almost as much as a paid employee. My exact tasks differ from day to day. Sometimes my supervisor has specific requests for me. For example, last weekend I researched and compiled a master list of the IUCN statuses of each arthropod and plant in the building (the official rank of it’s conservation status—least concern, vulnerable, highly endangered). Other times, I am on the floor interacting with guests and handling specimens, or just helping my supervisor with odd jobs.
There is one major challenge that I did not anticipate before starting at the Isectarium. It is our goal to introduce guests to traditionally creepy and scary critters in an attempt to ameliorate the negative attention most of these insects receive from humans. But despite our enthusiasm and admiration for these animals, 30 seconds of interaction with a squirming child, or worse, a squirming parent, isn’t always enough to break them of their inherent aversion to insects. While that can be frustrating, what’s worse are the comments we sometimes get from the guests, such as “ew, why are you touching that?” or “you’re disgusting! Do you have to do this every day?” It is as if some fundamental distaste for insects transcends the unwritten rules of courtesy and makes it socially acceptable for adults to disrespect professionals in their place of business. I want to ask some of these adults—would you openly disrespect your garbage man as he’s removing your trash? Would it be acceptable to enter a fast food restaurant, place an order, and then belittle the worker at the register? Social rules tell us absolutely not. Yet, all we can do is smile and try to use education as a proxy for dismembering the negative association people have with insects. As my supervisor said, “you have to respectfully remind guests that this is your job, and that you’re excited to be here. Hopefully then you can change their minds about what they see.”
Volunteers at the Audubon Insectarium first familiarize themselves with the facility by completing a museum scavenger hunt during their orientation day. The scavenger hunt, completed solely by the volunteer, asks various questions whose answers can only be found by walking through the building and carefully reading the information panels. Though time consuming, the detailed questions forced me to not just walk through each exhibit, but to analyze each display and learn from the information offered. This assignment was especially helpful in forcing me to learn the layout of the building. Though the urban placement of the Insectarium limits the available floor space, the building is stuffed with information from floor to ceiling, so it is important that each volunteer knows how to direct the guests to different exhibits, displays, and of course, the restrooms.
One of the first stations I manned by myself was Field Camp, the first deviation off of the main hall. At Field Camp, guests learn about the different tools that entomologists use to collect specimens in the field. There are display cases filled with field clothes, notebooks, pens, small plastc envelopes, magnifying glasses, and collection vials. There are contraptions hanging from the ceiling to demonstrate how a light trap can be set up to capture butterflies and moths. There is also a short video that plays on repeat to explain how insect collecting can be successful not just at a formal field site, but even in a child’s backyard.
My favorite part of Field Camp is the specimen table. Stationed there to educate guests, I got to handle Southwestern Hercules Beetles—large, armored beetles found in the southwestern United States. Seeing the faces of the guests quickly turn from fear and confusion to curiosity and acceptance when they saw me letting a female beetle crawl in my hand was very exciting for me. I am fascinated by insects, so popularizing a normally uncharismatic animal is very satisfying. Though I couldn’t handle them out of the cage, I also educated guests about our “Bug of the Month,” Japanese Bell Crickets. I too was surprised to learn that these insects were originally bred in buddhist temples because of their soothing bell-like chirps. I was fortunate enough to hear the group chirp while I was sitting at my station. It was unlike any chirp I’ve heard in a standard backyard cricket!
Boudreaux’s Bait Shop:
Much like Field Camp, the Bait Shop is a place for guests to touch live insects and ask questions about the specimens on display. Over the weekend, I worked this station with my supervisor and showed guests two types of beetles—Triceratops beetles and Patent leather beetles. There is a whole stock room of different insects right behind the exhibit, where volunteers can go to practice handling different types of insects. This was a rewarding experience, not just to be able to handle more insects and educate our guests, but to spend some time asking my supervisor questions about her career with the Audubon Institute.