From the Autumn 2019 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

​Creeping, crawling, slithering beneath rocks and in the cracks and crevices of our world, you have to admit bugs get a pretty bad rap.  On the face of it, they aren’t the most attractive creatures. They don’t evoke the nurturing response that, say, cats or puppies do. And their propensity to carry disease can send germaphobes scurrying upon sight. But the truth is their unappealing form often dissimulates extraordinary traits that not only raise their importance as a species but that challenge humans to learn from and emulate. It’s adaptation. Where humans have advanced in our history, we’ve adapted, and bugs are the granddaddies of adaptation.

​All around us, insects and spiders have built an unbelievable ecosystem that we scarcely notice. They can camouflage themselves as flowers, communicate using flashing lights, and even perform “brain surgery” to transform their prey into living zombies. This past summer, the Field Museum opened a riveting, new exhibition that gives visitors an illuminating peek into this mysterious, hidden world. Entitled Fantastic Bug Encounters, it gives a first-hand view into the life of bugs, showing visitors just how their incredible adaptations are transforming our own world through engaging interactives, larger-than-life models and a bug zoo where visitors are able to see and hold live insects from all over the globe.

It's been more than two decades since the Field Museum last showcased specimens from its roughly 17 million bug species in an exhibition dedicated to the exploration of insects, and according to Jaap Hoogstraten, Field Museum exhibitions director, this new exhibition is a great opportunity to showcase the depth and breadth of that massive collection, and the incredible versatility that has permitted these amazing creatures to outlast other species for millennia.

"Bugs are weird, beautiful and fascinating creatures, and we're proud to be able to share them with visitors of all ages in Fantastic Bug Encounters,” said Hoogstraten. “This exhibition is full of gorgeous larger-than-life models that show what these animals look like close-up and how they've perfectly adapted to the world around them—our visitors will never look at bugs the same way again."

​Originally developed by New Zealand’s world-famous Te Papa Museum, working with five-time Academy Award-winning studio Weta Workshop, Fantastic Bug Encounters explores a variety of specialized traits found in the insect word, and chief among them is their unique ability to adapt.

Hoogstraten points out that insects are some of the toughest species around, and their resilience is a large part of the exhibit. In an immersive, hands-on experience that gives visitors and opportunity to discover through science how bugs’ incredible adaptations are improving our world.

“Our knowledge of insects has led to some of the daily staples we use now,” Hoogstraten explained. “In the exhibition, interactive touch tables and videos from scientists explore the iridescent light on bank notes, fog harvesting and robotic legs, all innovations inspired by insects." 

Said Sir Richard Taylor, who co-created the exhibition with Te Papa Museum—and co-founded the Weta Workshop—"The exhibition is packed with fascinating science content, looking at how humans are adapting bug technology: from drones inspired by the humble housefly to spider venom being used to treat cancer. For 450 million years, bugs have been getting smarter. From brain surgery to teamwork to the power of flight—they really can do it all. Now they’re sharing their genius to help humans make the world a better place.”

​As Hoogstraten explained, while there is a wealth of information on why bugs are among the most fascinating creatures, this exhibit’s creators did not opt to cull that information down to a selection of talking points, they simply changed the way they chose to present it. “Focus on specific insects like the Jewel wasp or the Orchid mantis gives visitors a chance to really delve into the traits that many bugs have,” Hoogstraten told me. “But there aren't a lot of text and placards to read, rather interactive games and videos. The space is utilized best by the use of pods that house beautiful, extra large models of specific insects.”

By incorporating large-scale, colorful models of bugs in their habitats, the exhibition’s creators pull visitors into the world of these captivating creatures, perhaps facilitating a better understanding of insects and their true value.

Fantastic Bug Encounters is built around four immersive chambers, where guests experience, first-hand, the little-known talents of insects. There they get a chance to test their reflexes, try their hands at performing bug brain surgery, and fly their own origami butterflies in a large wind tunnel. And insect enthusiasts will get an opportunity to meet Field Museum scientists and their bugs in a one-of-kind bug petting zoo that features a dozen live species visitors can learn about and even touch.

For exhibit creators, it was important that Fantastic Bug Encounters dispel the myths surrounding insects and facilitate a positive experience with these creatures from whom we are already learning so much.

To that end, games like “racing” the Orchid mantis and flying a dragonfly introduce the element of fun to a concept often seen as repugnant. Visitors can also utilize touch pads to explore just how some bugs change color and use special flashlights to find a camouflage mantis.

Our knowledge of insects and their incredible adaptations has led to some amazing innovations. Some many today would find it difficult to live without.Realizing that, the next time you encounter one of these ubiquitous creatures, perhaps you'll consider the important role they play in the world you know. If not...well, at least consider making your way over to the Field Museum to this new exhibition and try a fantastic bug encounter of your very own.

Want More Great Coverage of Chicago's Amazing Arts & Culture at Your Fingertips? Subscribe to Clef Notes' Digital Edition using eCoupon: PRYBDW9R3LZJ for only $6.50 a year and get 50% Off the Standard Subscription Rate!


New larger-than-life exhibition at the Field Museum takes guests down a size or two and introduces them quite literally to the incredible word of bugs, exploring how study of their amazing adaptations have enhanced our own lives and demonstrating how valuable they really are to our very existence. 

By Isaac Jacobs

A young museumgoer explores large scale models of a hornet in Fantastic Bug Encounters, at the Field Museum this fall (photo courtesy of the Field Museum).