Bugging Out, Exhibits Style
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All photos by Wendy Lovelady and Dwight Burke