The Oddities Expo brought nature’s beauty and weirdness to the Insectarium — and also served as a grand reopening for the beleaguered museum.
Since the thefts in August that left the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion about 7,000 creatures lighter, there were a lot fewer oddities to see at the museum. That reset with the Philadelphia Oddities Expo, the museum’s grand re-opening on Saturday, which showcased peculiar creatures and art beyond just insects.
Some were delightful, like armadillos unfurling from their balled-up shapes and shaking out hay in visitors’ hands. Other sights were for those of stronger stomachs, including a display featuring animal birth abnormalities, such as a cyclops pig with one eye and the “octo-goat” — or body suspension artists, dangling from the rafters in the butterfly pavilion by metal rods pierced through their backs and legs.
It also symbolized the museum’s metamorphosis.
“We have, for the second time in two years, completely redone every exhibit in the museum,” said John Cambridge, CEO of the Insectarium.
The expo was planned long before the thefts, giving Cambridge and the museum an “unmovable deadline” to make the updates and bolster their creature collection. The expo was the brainchild of Adam Hutter, who has built a career out of weird things.
Hutter runs The End Times Boutique, which aims to “stimulate the mind and pry open the third eye,” according to its Facebook page. He travels the country to help put on about 30 shows a year, like tattoo and horror movie conventions. He said he took his favorite parts from other shows and sprinkled them into this one.
“This is a unique amalgamation of different sects of my eccentric universe,” Hutter said.
“Every so often, you’ll find a sushi place that has this special soy sauce that’s a little sweeter, and all of a sudden that sushi restaurant is a cut above the rest to you. … Traveling the country, all of the other shows, this was their special soy sauce. I just put them all together. This is a soy sauce expo.”
Some of the soy sauces included a flea market where Evan Michelson and Mike Zohn of the Discovery Channel show Oddities displayed wares. On the newly redesigned second floor, those brave enough to duck behind the curtain labeled “Twisted Room” glimpsed animal skeletons and creatures preserved in jars.
But perhaps the standout soy sauce was the suspension art performance, which saw one performer swing through the air to heavy metal music by the hooks pierced through her back below her shoulders. In suspension art, performers get special piercings, but the hooks aren’t inserted until shortly before the performance. Around 2,600 people showed up to partake in the weirdness.
After all the oddities cleared away, the Insectarium looked much different than ever before.
Cambridge and the staff were busy in the two months between the thefts and the expo. The museum raised approximately $18,000 from GoFundMe donations, which includes a $10,000 check from Orkin Pest Control presented the morning of the expo.
The money was used to carpet the second and third floors with green astroturf, new cage arrangements and new murals on the wall. Evan Lovett and Alysia Mackenzie of Vurt Creative redid the third floor. On the second floor, murals detailed different various phylum of living things, from amoebozoa to Mollusca.
As far as the creatures go, many new critters have found new homes in the building.
“We certainly have a larger collection than we did before, and we’re still getting more,” Cambridge said.
New critters include Indian ornamental tarantulas, honeypot ants, leaf insects and a variety of new snakes. Rosie the red-tailed boa is among Cambridge’s favorites. Many of the new creatures arrived via donations.
Entering the museum, visitors were greeted by a giant praying mantis sculpture. It was created by Vanny Channal, the museum’s new resident artist. Channal will create new sculptures for the museum, and is currently working on a bee statue.
“I only work with things that people throw away,” Channal said. He said he used to use materials thrown out by the Philadelphia Zoo, but now receives materials from metal suppliers.
Behind the scenes, security in the back of the house, where most of the creatures are stored, was improved. Additional security cameras were installed, and there is a tighter logging process for the animals.
The hiring process will include a more thorough screening and background check, in light of some employees being hired based on personal connections.
About 5 percent of the stolen creatures found their way back in the museum. The rest were never recovered. The investigation has left the Philadelphia Police Department’s hands and is being investigated on a higher level. Cambridge said he has not been involved in the investigation recently. Looking out from his office’s window walls over the butterfly pavilion bustling with activity, Cambridge looked on the bright side.
“We have built a better museum than we had three months ago,” he said. ••