A 5-foot-tall hornet tends to grab people’s attention.
But it’s not just the horrific dimensions, or the fine detail, that cements one’s feet in front of this replica insect. This giant hornet happens to be getting murdered by a swarm of Japanese honeybees, which themselves are enlarged to the size of dogs to illustrate their ability to “cook” enemies with fast-beating wings when threatened.
The tableau marks one of four jaw-droppingly beautiful sculptures inside “Bugs,” a visceral new exhibit that explores the sleek, creepy and surprising adaptations of insects, as well as arachnids, invertebrates and other critters. “Bugs,” which opens at Denver Museum of Nature & Science on March 10, is anchored by these massive sculptures but sprawls in every direction of its 13,000-square-foot space.
Surrounding the sculpture-pods — which are dramatically wreathed in pulsating lights, and primed for kaleidoscopic selfies — are stations and kiosks that can only be described as Tim Burton’s take on a Las Vegas casino, with purple, wavy-lettered signs that invoke whimsical fantasy worlds wrapped around video screens.
It’s not as noisy, or crowded, as that implies. But in keeping with its subject, the design marries insectoid shapes with touchscreens and digital games, living specimens, roving activity carts and video loops. A preserved blue morpho butterfly, for example, sits alongside paper money, holograms and concert-ticket stripes to illustrate how its reflective, pearlescent scales can inspire anti-counterfeiting technology.
“It’s super immersive and artistic in providing these larger-than-life interpretations,” said Maya Youcef-Toumi, a museum educator and bilingual coordinator who helped design interactive carts for the exhibit. “And a huge part of that is Wētā Workshop.”
The exhibit is a product of not only New Zealand’s Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, but Wētā as well. The Oscar-winning special effects and prop-house’s gold-standard designs mark an exciting entry into Denver’s museum scene. The company is best known for its work on Kiwi director Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, as well as James Cameron’s “Avatar” movies. But its iconic imagery ranges from horror films (“M3GAN”) to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its spin-off digital company Wētā FX has remade the world of CGI spectacle over the last two decades.
Director Jackson’s own obsessive fear of bugs has led him to include long, squishy passages with giant-bug battles in films such as “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and his “King Kong” remake. As such, Wētā’s creativity and mischievousness is palpable through the exhibit, which looks like nothing else that has visited Denver museums before. (One the kiosks even reuses dragon-feet props made for “Lord of the Rings,” Youcef-Toumi said, and it won’t be too hard to figure out which one).
The visual impact opens the door to learning, she said, and offers a chance to chip away at the negative stigma bugs have accrued. Microscopes will allow visitors to look closely at designs and textures on insect wings. The museum’s own collection of insects is there, too.
“It’s a shift in relationship,” Maya Youcef-Toumi said in front of a gorgeous, intimidating sculpture of an orchid mantis. “So many people think, ‘Ew, bugs. We need to kill them. They’re bad!’ But most people don’t think about their ecological contributions, their impressive adaptations in flight, display, and survival … . There are a lot of examples of how robotics is inspired by bugs. We’re trying to create a different connection to them here.”
Bugs make up 90 percent of all animal species on Earth, according to the museum, and are the most biologically diverse group of animals.
“Bugs are fascinating and beautiful, and so is this exhibit,” said Frank Krell, the museum’s senior curator of entomology, in a statement. “It’s a feast for our senses and will give visitors new experiences and insights into the unseen world of small critters.”
Despite its localization, with panels highlighting Colorado’s bug world, the exhibit wears its national pride on its sleeve. Kiwi bugs are ideal examples, as some of them look like huge, dinosaur-age freaks of nature. But there are also text passages in the Maori (Indigenous New Zealand) language, and cultural histories as they relate to insects.
What bugs in New Zealand share with Colorado’s high climes is their ability to adapt to extreme environments.
“You’ll find ones like these in your backyard,” said Maurilio Tapia, bilingual communications specialist at the museum, as he stood next to a humid terrarium stocked with snails and beetles. “But the exhibit overall is a lot more artistic and atmospheric than I’ve seen here.”
“For a lot of us, our first experience with science is with bugs,” Youcef-Toumi said as a cosmic soundtrack worthy of Vangelis bathed the space. “The goal is to feel inspired by them, not afraid.”
If you go
“Bugs”: All-ages scientific exhibition running Friday, March 10, through Aug. 27 at Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd. in Denver. Open daily 9 a.m-5 p.m. Entry requires a $7-$9.50 upcharge on top of general admission, $17-$23. Call 303-370-6000 or visit dmns.org.
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