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On Butterfly Exhibits

More than a decade ago, I remember telling a girlfriend we’d do anything she wanted for her birthday. (Here’s a tip: Never say that; you’re just asking for trouble.) We were living in Manhattan at the time and she wanted to go to the Museum of Natural History’s Butterfly Exhibit. The one at the National Museum of Natural History is coming soon for all of you in the DC area. I know, I know, you’re getting your tickets as soon as you’re done reading this post and you’re giddy with excitement.

Though I said I’d go wherever she wanted to go, I did say I’d rather not attend the butterfly exhibit, but she was a bit butterfly-obsessed and didn’t seem to care that they would spend their entire lives in a tiny space surrounded by ogling humans. And maybe there is a god because as soon as we entered the exhibit, my friend was struck by the number of butterflies who were, um, dropping like flies, and how frantic they all were to escape either us, or their entire man-made prison. They would cling to the ceiling, the vents, the lights–anything up high, and the closest you’d get to them was when they were falling–dead–in front of your eyes. My girlfriend and I spent all of five minutes in the exhibit, and she swore off all such things that day. It’s like taking someone to a slaughterhouse (but you’re paying to continue the exploitation) in that although it’s disturbing, you have the opportunity to open someone’s eyes in a way that words fail to accomplish.

The exhibit in DC will open on Valentine’s Day and will be housed in a 2,500-square-foot pavilion (at a cost of $3 million) where 300-500 butterflies and 323 plants, including flower and nectar-producing plants will live (and die, as the butterflies live from two to four weeks "and they have to be replenished. The museum will receive live shipments once or twice a week, organizers say.")

Replenished. Live shipments.

"The annual budget for running the exhibit space and replenishing the butterflies is $800,000 to $1 million." Sunlight will be created with 1,000-watt bulbs, and 80 degrees Fahrenheit and 80% humidity will be maintained.

"And, it turns out, butterflies seem to like luxurious natural materials. The walls are marble and three patterns of tile on the floor give an upscale, spa-like touch."

I’m not sure if playing out your entire life as an exhibit, regardless of what materials surround you, is preferable to spending it free to travel wherever you want, whenever you want, with the sun playing the part of the sun, and the sky playing the part of the sky.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. live shipments, replenish! forgive my ignorance, why the dickens would they have to do that? last i heard family butterfly were busy little breeders …
    butterfly-eggs-caterpillar (larva)-pupa (chrysalis)-butterfly.
    unless … unless those happily munching caterpillar/larva were to perhaps make a meal of the rather expensive plants sharing their man made habitat…
    omg how are they going to stop them, laying,hatching, eating?? stands to reason a butterfly exhibit is always bound to become a caterpillar exhibit … sooner or later…

    October 24, 2007
  2. There is actually a puparium (not sure if I spelled that correctly) in the exhibit where you can see the various stages. The butterflies come from Latin America and Africa and have to be replenished EVERY WEEK. Check out this NPR story (, which is also helpful for the discussion on where your tax dollars go, how much EDs make, and how ridiculous some expense accounts are (that you're funding). As for the answer to your question, I'll be looking into that today, but I'd imagine some other Animal Person readers already know the answer. Speak up, people! Save me some time today!

    October 24, 2007
  3. Okay, I thought about this some more and I think it's a numbers thing. Say all 500 who arrive on Day 1 are the same age. And say they lay and hatch at the same time, and more important, die at the same time. There could technically be 10 days in there somewhere where everyone's either dead or not a butterfly yet. Unlikely, so I'll be more conservative and say maybe the weekly replenishing isn't a complete population of 500, but enough to cover the gaps (dead + not developed yet).

    October 24, 2007

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