In a dimly lit room deemed the “mad lab,” with walls adorned with old grandfather clocks and repurposed antique furniture lit from behind by glowing neon lights, John Cambridge stood, a tarantula in his hand and an orchid mantis on his shoulder.
“We almost died last year,” he said.
The last three years have been a bumpy ride for the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, which spent months in 2018 recovering from series of thefts that took more than 7,000 creatures from its premises, only to be met soon afterward by a pandemic that prevented visitors. Without the financial support from the public, the prospect of even being able to stay open was put into question.
CEO Cambridge and the staff kept busy during the would-be downtime. The museum launched a new education department directed by Trisha Nichols, creating science lessons for students that can be distributed in bags and give them a hands-on activity during the age of digital learning.
The lessons were distributed to schools around Philadelphia, and Cambridge recently agreed to distribute the lessons to more than a thousand students at schools in the Upper Darby School District.
“It’s a scale that we never dreamed we would have been able to do,” Cambridge said.
The staff has also been busy as bees working to improve the building itself. When the museum reopens June 5, visitors will experience a madhouse-themed first floor, a concept elevated from the museum’s already-wacky appearance. In the mad lab, Cambridge’s favorite upgraded space, visitors will witness scientific experiments and dissections, or they can enjoy a light show in the Insectarium planetarium, view art or inspect critters under a big top-inspired ceiling in any of the surrounding rooms.
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, the Insectarium has welcomed a few new surprise furry or scaly faces to the foray.
As for the insects, visitors can anticipate seeing giant African millipedes, which can grow over a foot long, and Hercules beetles imported from Germany.
“A good museum is never done, and we aim to be a great museum, so we’re not even close,” he said.
Amidst its expansion, the museum is also looking to hire individuals with management and education experience to supplement its growth.
Mistakes the museum has made in the past will not be forgotten as it moves forward. A documentary exploring illegal trade in the black market, tentatively titled ‘Pull the Plug Out,’ will release later this year, distributed via Amazon. The 7,000-creature theft from the museum will be a focal point of the documentary, with many of the creatures stolen from the Insectarium sold illegally. It’s a reminder of what the museum lost a few years ago, a lesson it has hopefully learned from.
Because a good museum is always evolving, and this itsy-bitsy spider may have climbed its way out of the waterspout. ••