I've never been the kind of girl who was into butterflies. Somewhere between Mariah Carey's insipid song, those ugly-ass hair clips and the proliferation of tramp stamps, I got the message that butterflies represent a certain precious, feminine flightiness that I'm loath to be associated with.
But when I heard about the Butterfly Pavilion, an annual summer exhibit that opened Sunday in a 2,106-square-foot greenhouse on the lawn of the Natural History Museum, in which 25 people at a time mingle with more than 300 butterflies from 54 species for less than the price of a latte, I had to admit I was intrigued. Walking around in an enclosed space, surrounded by flapping patterned wings and the flora that love them? Plus, Vladimir Nabokov collected and studied butterflies. I figured I could make an exception to my no-butterflies rule just this once and spend a Sunday afternoon in their company.
Little did I know, slaughter awaited.
“Most of these guys, their wings are torn,” a girl with a low ponytail and a red shirt proclaiming “I put ketchup on my ketchup” tells her older brother as they wander around the Pavilion forlornly. “Most” might be a stretch, but death and destruction loom large inside the exhibit, as parents and the single museum staff member assigned to monitor grabby kids wholeheartedly urge: DON'T TOUCH!
“See how the wing is hurt?” a mother says to her two kids. “Because somebody tried to catch it. So we shouldn't do that.”
But it's difficult to resist reaching out to the gorgeous, jittery insects, as they are all around you, showing off their vibrant wings and daring you to follow their jolting paths with your eyes as they dash from plant to floor to sleeve.
A woman with a magenta sequin butterfly inset in the back of her colorful top leads around a blond toddler wearing a tricorn pirate's hat.
“Oh, you can't touch [the butterflies], or they'll die,” she tells another mother, whose child has been fondling some psychedelic wings. “The lady was yelling at me earlier.”
Overhearing this exchange, another mother hisses into her husband's ear, gesturing to their daughter. “I'm not letting her touch it, because you're not supposed to, but everyone else is!”
Adults try to capture the ephemeral beauty with long-lens SLR cameras, but children crave a petting zoo. Lila Higgins, who oversees the Butterfly Pavilion as the manager of citizen science and live animals at the museum, sighs when I expressed my horror.
“The magical moment when the butterfly lands on the kid? We want that. But it's the kids going out and grabbing and trying to touch every butterfly and stress them out and trying to chase them…,” she trails off. “We're really trying to encourage other behaviors. We're trying to say no in as nice of a way as possible.”
Back at the Pavilion, a small crowd has begun to gather around the latest victim, weakly fluttering on the ground.
“He's still alive. Look, his wings are moving,” a child says.
“It's a death rattle,” a man says.
“Why is he dying, Mommy?”
“Somebody probably stepped on it,” the mother responds. The man asks the museum employee whether the butterfly is dying a natural death, and she grimaces.
“I mean, you know, we have a lot of people touching, so … if they land on you, it's OK, but it does damage them to touch. They have very short lifespans, though, so it's a combination,” the employee says.
Yet Higgins said she feels somewhat conflicted about the no-touching rule, as it prevents youngsters from learning from their mistakes and experiencing the cruel fragility of nature firsthand. She described a vivid memory from her childhood, of watching bees pollinate flowers and covering them with glasses before she was called inside her house for lunch. When she returned, all of the bees were dead.
“I was probably only 6 when those poor bees perished, but it made me realize the responsibility, how much of an impact I can have on nature and what's living around me. It's not always a terrible thing when children do something that seems very destructive to us adults,” she says, and then pauses for a second. “But then again, that was in my own personal backyard, and this is an exhibit with 100,000 people coming through.”
If you're looking to drown your sorrows about life's utter impermanence on your way out of the Pavilion (while passing the “Check yourself for hitchhiking butterflies” sign), an orgy of butterfly products can be purchased in the gift shop that envelops you. I mulled over butterfly glitter tattoos, luggage tags, tote bags, pillows, paperweights, coasters, magnets, stationery, kites, Christmas ornaments, coloring books, jigsaw puzzles and, oddly enough, snow globes. I considered on what occasion I could feasibly sport wearable plush wings, butterfly-shaped color-changing mood jewelry or butterfly-print pajamas with “Social Butterfly” written across the chest.
I gasped in disgust when I saw Camille Beckman's butterfly-bedecked Morelia Monarch line of creams and lotions, but it turns out the products contain fruit and flower extracts but no actual butterflies.
I felt a little better after I saw that.
The Butterfly Pavilion is open April 8-Sept. 3, at regular museum hours. Free for Natural History Museum members and kids under 4, $1 for ages 5-12, $2 for ages 13-17 and $3 for adults, not including museum entrance.