07 November 2010

It Happened at the Museum

Last night I set out to attend Denver's Night at the Museums. 

In the early evening, I circled around and around the Museum of Contemporary Art looking for a parking place.  No luck. 

So I abandoned downtown and drove through the Denver night east, toward my alternate choice museum for the free admission event:  Denver Museum of Nature and Science. 

Eventually finding a space in the underground parking there, I headed into the museum. People--most of them with kids--were out in droves last night.

I figured I would hit the temporary exhibit, Amazon Voyage: Vicious Fishes & Other Riches.  As the title suggests, and as their website has it, the exhibit "mixes real scientific research, light humor, and whimsical artwork into a fun, interactive experience for visitors of all ages. . ."

I had a good time watching groups attempt to lift the 60-pound rubber Anaconda and pose for pictures, and was interested in the interactive video time line showing how once-saltwater creatures became part of the biologically diverse Amazon ecosystem. I could not believe that I had lived all these years without knowing or realizing that the Amazon rises 30 feet in the rainy season, and that many villages are therefore either floating structures or built on stilts.

The exhibit opened with Captain Mo telling us about the 7 Perils of the Amazon, being various huge fish and snakes and amazing creatures that want nothing more than to eat us.  At the end of his video spiel, the jolly riverboat captain said, "Well,that's what I tell the tourists, anyway" and suggested we now enter the exhibit to find out the truth about the Amazon and its burgeoning flora and fauna.

With all this concentration on the Amazon's biodiversity, the irony was that there were precious few actual living things in the exhibit. A few tropical fish in a big tank over here, some piranhas segregated over there.   And then there were the cockroaches.

I approached a mild gray-haired woman who stood behind a waist-high exhibit table.  On the table in front of her was a shoebox-sized clear plastic box.  And in the box were 20 or so large flattish brown winged creatures.  They were Amazon Cockroaches. All males, the docent told me, remarking that "we don't want to get into the business of raising cockroaches here."

The bugs were about 2 inches long by an inch and a half wide.  They were light brown with darker markings.  They had some sticks in the box to climb on, and a paper towel, that, wet once a day, supplied all the water they needed.  

The bugs in the box were almost entirely still.  One in the corner was fussing around a bit, and this was the main question the woman got to speculate on:  what was this guy doing?  And why were the others so still?

Well, they actually have two boxes of Amazon Cockroaches.  One is kept under the exhibit table, in the dark. The bugs like that.  Apparently they are very active down there in the dark, and remain active for only a few minutes after brought out into the glaring museum light which shone right down on this table.  Slowly, they would slow down and eventually stop, settling into the lethargic state we saw them in.

I hung around a bit and watched, fascinated.  The woman was equipped (or should I say "armed") with a long red plastic stick.  There were holes in the cockroach box, and she could reach in there and move things around a bit.  Not that she was going to bug the bugs.  She might move their food pellets ("dog poop," she told me) around, or their leaves and sticks.

She had great, decorous respect for the creatures in her charge.

People came up to look at the bugs.  She explained about the lights and the second box in the dark. She speculated as to why the one roach in the corner was the only one moving. People left.

Eventually a fellow docent came over to see how she was doing.  This younger guy, in his thirties, had apparently manned the cockroach gig at times.  The lady was explaining to some new guests about the other roaches in the box in the dark and why these weren't moving.

"So, if you took the other box out of the dark, how long would they be moving?" I asked.

"Oh, about two or three minutes," she said, "then they'll settle down again like this."

"I usually just shake 'em," her fellow docent chimed in.

We all chuckled nervously.  "Don't do that!" I think I said.

The lady continued with her spiel about the roaches.  The new guests nodded their heads.

The younger docent reached out and grabbed the box.

"No! Don''t!" said the docent woman.

"You just close your eyes or turn around," said the younger man.

I might have said "Don't do it," or I should have, but I was riveted by the horrible thing about to happen.

The guy turned the box over and--shake! shake! shake!--gave it three vigorous ones.  Cockroaches rattled against the sides like wooden nickels.

He put the box down on the table again.  "See?  There!"  swaggered this schoolyard lout of a docent as the cockroaches scrambled around in terror.  One had climbed to the very top of a stick and clung there.

It was a moment both hilarious and horrible.  In that moment, all scientific objectivity was gone, all respect for nature trashed.  The whole enterprise, this museum all around us, crumbled down into dust.

It only lasted a moment.

Then: "How long do they live?" asked one of the guests.

"They have a lifespan of about a year, in captivity," the lady docent replied.


"That is, if we don't shake them," she added.