Summertime in the city means it’s time for big things–music festivals, street fairs, parades, baseball and blockbuster exhibits on Museum Campus. Something big always seems to crop up just when the kids are out of school and the tourists are descending on the city in droves. Last summer, the Field Museum served up Jurassic World, a huge showpiece of an exhibit full of animatronic dinosaurs and movie magic.
This year, we’ve moved back into Stanley Field Hall for Fantastic Bug Encounters. If that’s not sounding exactly like a “blockbuster” exhibit at first mention, we can assure you you’ll get more than you expected when you check it out. In press releases, the exhibit was described as a live bug zoo, which would be neat in its own right, but what Fantastic Bug Encounters turns out to be is a weird and wonderful ride through the world of insects–presented in the science forward manner the Field Museum excels at and that we thought Jurassic World lacked.
The Field Museum has an extensive, carefully curated insect collection, carefully catalogued, preserved and being used in active research behind the scenes in the museum’s various offices and labs. During member’s nights and on other special occasions we’ve gotten a look, so we knew there would be some pretty wonderful things to see.
What we didn’t know is that we’d walk into a totally different world, full of fantastical (in the truest sense of the word) set pieces that bring the insect world to you in an almost X-Files meets Henson Creature Shop meets Guillermo del Toro’s world sort of way. It might not be obvious when you first walk in, but as soon as you enter the first “set piece” in the exhibit, you’ll understand the sort of wild ride you’re in for. It’s spooky, trippy, magical and educational.
Fantastic Bug Encounters comes to the Field Museum by way of New Zealand, and was created via a collaboration between famous New Zealand museum, Te Papa, and Weta Workshops. If you just can’t quite place that name, you likely know some of their work. Weta Workshop does design and manufacturing for film, television and other creative industries, and has won awards including Oscars and BAFTAs, for their visual effects work in films like 2005’s King Kong, as well as their work for costuming, makeup, special visual effects and miniatures in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They also create high end collector’s edition figures, replicas and costumes for collectors from a variety of video game, TV and movie franchises.
In this case, with Fantastic Bug Encounters, all the incredible design work creates a wonderland of an insect world, larger than life and ready to explore. Throughout your journey through the darkened exhibit, the esoteric, dreamlike music will take you on a journey to encounter bees, dragonflies, hornets, the orchid mantis and the wasp. Each encounter is different–but all are truly fantastic.
Each station in Fantastic Bug Encounters is like a little maze. As you curl around the larger structure, brightly colored, vaguely plantlike and having an almost otherworldly feel, you’ll learn about what you’re going to see–like the orchid mantis, a creature that is beautiful and deadly. It’s evolved to look like the delicate orchids that grow in its habitat, and is colored like them, so that it can blend in to the gorgeous surround until the right bug walks straight into its trap and is devoured.
At the next stop, you’ll learn more about dragonflies, or visit a beehive being attacked by a wasp. Each separate “pod” provides its own unique experience. Some are beautiful, even mesmerizing, and some are more brutal, real life situations. While I appreciate and even advocate for bees, for example, coming upon a wasp as big as me being attacked by several honeybee drones was at the very least a little alarming. But this too, serves its purpose.
Add to this great interactivity. When you come upon the hive under attack, you can play a game to help warm up the hive and defeat the wasp. In the orchid mantis’ domain you can test your reflexes against her with a wall mounted game, and later on, take a cue from the jewel wasp, and take a wooden-stake sized stinger and plunge it into an incredibly cool looking replica of a cockroach head with light-up eyes. There’s a beetle slide and more than a little amazing macro photography of all kinds of insects, as well as a great focus on insects from all over the world, instead of just those in the US.
Fantastic Bug Encounters is exactly that–thrilling, magical–sometimes a little bit scary. It allows adults and kids to get closer than they ever could in real life, and shows off some of the sort of spooky, alien properties these creatures possess–from bombadier beetles that do exactly what they sound like they would to wasps which “zombify” their cockroach prey before converting it to a “nursery” and then finally a meal for their offspring. It’s okay for bugs to be a little scary, or gross, or alien, and Fantastic Bug Encounters doesn’t try to throw anyone’s perceptions on their head.
What it does do is try to get us to be in awe of insects of all shapes and sizes, and to learn about how they work, and live. It’s for us to understand the influences insects have had on our own society and development as a species–from the iridescence of a butterfly wing inspiring security features on currency, to the jointed legs of insects providing guidance to engineers working with robots.
Rounding out the Fantastic Bug Encounters experience is the live bug zoo that headlined the press release. In it you’ll find all manner of insects to peer in on–swimming bugs, spiders (including black widows and tarantulas) and hissing beetles. There’s also staff on hand to introduce you to the bugs, face to face. On the hour most hours for the duration of the exhibit, staff will be on hand, with live insects. Some can be held by the guests, while others will simply be part of feedings or live demonstrations. In all cases, the staff is there to educate, and confront kids’ (and adults’) fears about the creepy crawlers, as well as to point out their place and importance in our environment.
We didn’t think we’d be this excited about a bug exhibit at the Field Museum, but as has long been the case with Chicago museums, they’ve brought something truly fantastic to the space. And while the exhibit is aiming at a younger audience than with things like Tattoo or Specimens, with the beautiful photography, interesting cultural tidbits and impressive set pieces, anyone should be able to find something to enjoy in Fantastic Bug Encounters. Fantastic Bug Encounters is a special exhibit at the Field Museum but admission for entry is included in the museum’s All Access Pass. Fantastic Bug Encounters opens today and runs through April 19, 2020.