Local Arts

This intensive, new Discovery Place exhibition makes bugs big and humans seem small

Bug Lab exhibition makes U.S. debut in Charlotte

Discovery Place Science is hosting "Bug Lab" an exhibit that takes you into the fascinating life of bugs. The exhibit was created by New Zealand’s museum Te Papa along with Weta Workshop, the design studio behind “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
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Discovery Place Science is hosting "Bug Lab" an exhibit that takes you into the fascinating life of bugs. The exhibit was created by New Zealand’s museum Te Papa along with Weta Workshop, the design studio behind “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Discovery Place is going big on bugs this winter using an Alice-In-Wonderland twist: Entering the exhibition “Bug Lab,” we seem to instantly shrink while the bugly uglies puff into giants.

As we safari among tall grasses and beneath a dappled canopy, we come face to cowl with some of nature’s most peculiar superstars, such as the aerodynamically gifted dragonfly and a wasp that does brain surgery. It’s a bit startling to learn how wee bugs are so advanced, but we quickly find that bugs tower above humans in many ways.

For example, they squish us in the census -- for every human on the planet, there are an estimated 2 billion bugs. And bugs have been in development for about 400 million years, making them roughly twice as old as the dinosaurs.

Charlotte is the first destination in the Western Hemisphere for “Bug Lab,” opening Dec. 8, developed in New Zealand and recently on exhibit in Australia.

It crossed the Pacific by ship, buzzed through the Panama Canal and then landed at the Port of Charleston, where it faced a curious reception. Border agents held it up three days for inspections.

Bug Lab makes its debut in Charlotte’s Discovery Place Science from December.jpg
This piece of “Bug Lab” opens and closes. Lorena Rios Trevino

“I think the words ‘Bug Lab’ caught their interest,” says Sarah Macey, assistant vice president of design and exhibitions at Discovery Place, which hasn’t done such an intensive show on bugs in its nearly four decades of existence.

“Its artful nature is unparalleled in terms of some of the shows we’ve had in the past,” Macey says. “It’s exquisite.”

That’s largely because for design expertise in shaping the exhibit, the renowned New Zealand museum Te Papa chose Sir Richard Taylor, whose creative workshop has created special effects for such movies as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “District 9” and “I Robot.”

Building bugs on a huge scale, Taylor says, was integral to the carnival of oddities he sought to create.

“Bug colonies around our gardens have attributes no science fiction writer has ever imagined. I wanted the children to step into an alien world.”

Discovery Place displays some of the bugs in its lab.jpg
“Bug Lab” will offer plenty of live-action bugs, too, like this Dead Leaf Mantis. Lorena Rios Trevino

There’s a Bombardier Beetle so big, for example, that youngsters can slide through, popping out the rump with a rude toot. And dog-sized warrior bees so anatomically accurate that only hog’s hair would do to simulate their furry hides, Taylor says.

On the darker side, visitors get to meet the Orchid Mantis, which disguises itself as a beautiful flower (with hungry eyes) to beckon its prey, and the Jewel Wasp, which pokes a prod into the brain of a cockroach, zombifying it as a living host for her babies.

In another pod, the agile dragonfly appears to snarf an airborne snack in a zoetrope, an engineering marvel in its own right, where a line of small statues mounted on a whizzing disc come to life under a strobe lamp.

Discovery Place plans a variety of activities around the exhibition including caterpillar races, ladybug labs and -- for the most intrepid visitors -- bug-eating competitions.

Bugs are a great protein source, says Juliann Chavez, director of public experiences at Discovery Place, who has a fascination for creepy things and points out that you’re rarely more than 2 feet away from a benevolent spider, however small.

Bug breeding is a small industry at the museum, and Chavez will be trotting out some home-grown oddities during the exhibition for show and -- ugh -- snacking.

Bug Lab

WHEN: Dec. 8-May 5.

WHERE: Discovery Place Science, 301 N. Tryon St., Charlotte 28202.

DETAILS: More info: discoveryplace.org, 704-372-6261.

COST: Admission: $24 adults, $20 children ($7 members) includes entire museum plus “Backyard Wilderness,” an IMAX movie about the bug occupation of your backyard.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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