Though the date for Philadelphia museums to reopen to the public during COVID-19 has come and gone, the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion remains closed. The staff of the insect-packed museum have still been busy, and for CEO John Cambridge, it’s worth the wait.
“At the beginning of shutdown, we undertook a project that was so huge that there was no possibility of ever doing it except for a time like this,” Cambridge said.
When doors reopen for an estimated spring relaunch, visitors can expect an experience quite different from their previous excursions into the already-wacky museum. This time they’ll discover a madhouse-themed first floor, complete with conducting scientific experiments under a big top-inspired ceiling, interactive projections on floors and ceilings, art installations and more surprises.
Walking up the green-carpeted stairs, visitors will find an interactive exhibit on the second floor that shrinks you down to the size of a bug on a forest floor, with tunnels to crawl through and features to interact with. The third floor still acts mostly as exhibit space for creatures, but with nearby zoos shutting down during the pandemic, Cambridge has welcomed a few new faces to the foray like Zuko the skunk.
“The museum was cool before, but when we’re done, it’ll be unlike anything Philadelphia has ever seen before,” Cambridge promised.
The entire museum will also be packed with new works of art from a team of about 20 local artists led by Frank Chappell, director of creative engagement. New artwork includes giant portraits of moths and other insects, doors attached to walls leading to nowhere and structures built entirely of tree branches.
“Every day is another adventure,” Chappell said.
Cambridge has yet to choose a specific date for the museum’s reopening, but anticipates it will happen sometime this spring.
More than a museum
During shutdown, the museum has also started a new education department directed by Trisha Nichols. While schooling in Philadelphia has remained virtual for months, the team has put together and distributed thousands of bags to a few local schools to give students a hands-on lesson to learn during shutdown.
Lessons thus far have tasked students with creating different types of goo, combining different pieces to build their own bug and building their own landscape out of objects like Play-Doh and rocks.
The lessons are distributed to several schools including Tacony Academy Charter School and Charter High School, First Philadelphia Charter School in Frankford and Lindley Academy in North Philadelphia.
The Insectarium has been no stranger to the news in recent years. In 2018 the museum made national news when over 7,000 creatures were stolen from the museum by ex-employees. The theft was a turning point for the museum, which reopened several months later with new creatures and renovated attractions. It also spurred a documentary to be created about the theft and the black market, with Cambridge as the focal point. The documentary will be distributed by Amazon.
Cambridge has ambitions to turn the museum into an event destination. Last year he began working on an outdoor amphitheater meant to host events such as community events and weddings, but the project was halted by L&I after it was written about in the Northeast Times.
When it emerges from shutdown, Cambridge hopes it will be bigger and wilder than any other location in Philadelphia.
“We’re undergoing this giant transformation. This is a big one,” Cambridge said. ••