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Bugging Out, Exhibits Style

September 13, 2012

By Wendy Lovelady

Recently, we were asked “what was the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to make for an exhibit?” Our model-makers, Dwight and Jane, both found it difficult to name just one thing. Would it be the giant eyeball model that Dwight built for the Teaching Collection? Or maybe the sparkly brain, with built-in LED lights, created for an exhibit called “The Human Spark”? Bugs and other invertebrates ended up on the list more than once—a giant walking stick, a giant African land snail, all memorable models.

Photo of an exhibit case featuring a light-up brain model and a Neanderthal skull

“Braaaaiiiins!” said the zombie Exhibit Designer. “Braaaiiins with lights!”

Photo of Dwight and his Giant African Land Snail

Dwight shows off his model of a Giant African Land Snail. His office is full of creations like this.

We still have no clear winner on the question of the “weirdest,” so this is not technically an Ask the Exhibitionist answer. But I wanted to show off one of my favorites, the giant ladybugs in our Arthropod Zoo exhibit. Dwight sculpted a total of three of these colossal beetles for the exhibit on the fourth floor of the Museum’s Main Building. These Nine-spotted Ladybugs, normally a mere 7 millimeters in length, were designed to be 65 times larger than normal size, coming in around 18 inches long.

Photo of ladybug model in the Arthropod Zoo

A giant ladybug climbs giant leaves of grass in the Arthropod Zoo.

It was a few years ago that Dwight made these ladybug models, but we found some old photos that illustrate the process. First he sculpted the basic body form out of foam, basing the body shape and relative dimensions on photos and specimens of the real animal. He then covered the foam base with clay, and began to sculpt details into the clay overlay.  Because the model had to be complete and accurate on both sides, he created scaffolding to hold the ladybug up off the work bench, so the model could be rotated as he worked.

Series of photos shows the clay model of a ladybug

This photo series shows the clay sculpting part of the modeling process.

The legs and antenna were sculpted separately. They’re too delicate to be sculpted directly onto the body; they might bend or break off as the model progresses. So Dwight used paper prototypes to get the proportions right before sculpting the appendages individually.

Photos of paper prototypes and clay legs on ladybug model

The evolution of model legs: it’s not as sexy as you might think. It’s impressive, nonetheless.

Finally, the completed sculptures were used to create plaster molds. We needed three copies of the ladybug, and it’s too labor-intensive to sculpt each one individually. So Dwight made molds of both the body and the legs, and poured polyester resin into the molds. After the resin was dry, the models could be removed from their molds, put together, and painted. Then they were ready for installation in the gallery.

Photos show the making of molds of the ladybug model

Here the sculpture is made into a mold so that multiple copies can be produced.

Photo of Dwight adjusting his ladybug model after it is installed in the exhibit.

Dwight adjusts his creation after it is installed in the Arthropod Zoo.

The making of a ladybug is a complex process. These models took several months to complete, and they are only one of the many arthropod species on display in our permanent exhibits. We have giant bees and dragonflies, mounted specimens of horned beetles and Morpho butterflies, not to mention live creepy-crawlies of many varieties.

I could say all this attention to insects is because we have more than one entomologist on staff, but really it’s because more than three-fourths of all known animal species are arthropods. It would be hard to ignore them.

If you’re up for more buggy fun, make sure to come out to the Museum this Saturday, September 15, for our annual Bugfest celebration. It’s the Museum’s biggest event of the year, and the largest single-day bug festival in the world!

This year the theme insect is the mantid. Naturally, the 10-foot-tall mantis created for our Arthropod Zoo would approve.

Visitors encounter a giant model mantis at the entrance to the Arthropod Zoo

“Braaaiiins!” said the giant mantis. “The braaaiins of children! Fill them with buggy facts, please!”

All photos by Wendy Lovelady and Dwight Burke

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 14, 2012 5:23 pm

    Reblogged this on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Blogs.

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