Summer at the Museum

(This column was first published in the July 9, 2001 Buffalo News.)

            A good museum is a work in progress.

            A visit to the Buffalo Museum of Science last week confirmed that this museum is indeed a work in progress and therefore indeed an excellent institution. If your last visit was as little as six months ago, you will be surprised to find there not only changed exhibits but a changed atmosphere -- an excitement -- as well. I can think of no place in the area better suited to a summer visit by young and old alike.

            Let me describe for you what I found last week on a tour of the museum's second floor.

            At the top of the broad staircase leading up from the atrium the balcony now offers four showcases filled with a rich variety of exhibits. These are obvious teasers, individual examples -- like the lowland gorilla -- taken from storage to highlight the various halls. They show the broad range of delights to be explored as you visit further. It took me a half hour just to get past these showcases, their objects are so interesting.

            Immediately beyond the mezzanine in Hamlin Hall is the remarkable new anthropological exhibit, "Through a Clouded Mirror," which connects the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo to modern times. It does so through the involvement in both of African-Americans. This is a wonderful evocation of that time a hundred years ago when Buffalo was a world-class city and the connection with today's African-American community is both appropriate and uplifting.

            Next in a side hall one of the most remarkable films about invertebrates I have ever seen, "Microcosmos," was being introduced by Catrina Caira. Catrina and her colleague Mary Goehrig are college students who bring to the exhibits their infectious enthusiasm. In the film successive images outdo the preceding ones and I found myself intimately involved in a world of caterpillars, ants and beetles. To me the best scene is the dung beetle whose ball of dung becomes impaled on a thorn. How the beetle releases its possession shows perfectly both the power and limitations of its tiny brain.

            On into the major display of huge invertebrates where a twenty foot tarantula menaces. These are most impressive but to me they are only the introduction to the real show -- the opportunity to observe local insects and to interact with the museum's entomology staff.

            Among the exhibits a large tank is replenished every few days with the flora and fauna of local ponds. Through its waterweed and hornwort swim leeches, sticklebacks, water scorpions, diving beetles and giant waterbugs -- AKA toe biters. Snails work the tank's glass sides, crayfish search its bottom and water striders and whirligig beetles dash about the water surface. Catrina helped locate the individual plants and animals.

            Finally I reached the senior entomology staff -- Wayne Gall, Marc Potzler and Jacob Wickham. In response to inquiries they place various insects on a microscope platform to be projected enlarged on a screen behind them. When I was there, George and Patricia Ciancio had just brought in three dobsonflies -- huge lacewing relatives with five-inch wingspans. These are the adult form of larva known to fishermen as hellgrammites. On their heads are pincer-shaped jaws and, sure enough, one female gave Dr. Gall a painful nip.

            The staff will continue to be available through July and August -- Tuesday through Friday 11-3, Saturday 12-3 and Sunday 1-4. "Microcosmos" is shown during those times as well. Time your visit to take advantage of these wonderful bonuses.-- Gerry Rising

Learn more about this wonderful museum at the Buffalo Museum of Science website.