The Butterfly Garden

Tucked into the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History is a live butterfly pavilion. It’s bright and humid, just the way live butterflies like it. And because I’m an intern, I get one ticket per week to visit (free, just the way unpaid interns like it):

Because the pavilion is a tight enclosed space, people are let in in groups. I got grouped in with a troupe of pre-teen Girl Scouts. Sadly, one of the Girl Scouts stepped on a butterfly and was gently chastised by a volunteer. No dead bug pictures here.


I found it odd that there were markers all over the place identifying the flowers, but not the butterflies, who, at least in name, should have been the belles of the ball:


The wings are beautiful, to be sure, but what ever made amateur enthusiasts want to kill them and pic them to pieces of cardboard? Was it ownership? A signal that the collector had, in fact, conquered the species instead of simply seeing it and marveling at it? Maybe I don’t understand because pictures don’t involve killing. Maybe I don’t understand because amateur collecting and science overlapped in ways that make me uncomfortable. There are parallels between collecting butterflies, taking African art, and taking indigenous bodies.

The scale of the acts is different, but the attitude is the same. As if the entire world were available for subjugation.


One thought on “The Butterfly Garden

  1. Butterfly specimen collections make less sense with modern technology, that is true. But in the days before color photography, there was no other way to study them without traveling all over the world. I wish I had gotten a chance to see the Pavilion! Next time I’m in D.C.

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