Those spindly legs that belie shockingly fast movement, the black eyes and pointed mandibles, the invisible webs that stick to the skin — there’s just something about spiders.
For anyone who hates arachnids, the Spider Pavilion at the Natural History Museum looms a greater test of courage than any slickly designed haunted house — putting your face up to a motionless orb-weaving arachnid seems infinitely braver than walking through a seizure-inducing set while actors jump out from behind every corner.
The exhibit, open for six weeks from late September until early November, is a modestly sized open-air terrarium, which sits behind the museum itself.
Orb-weaving spiders have spread their webs across the air, with no glass or wire separating them from visitors, who are free to get as close as they want to the wide variety of colorful arachnids.
Robert Saldivar, a gallery interpreter for the museum, wanders the enclosure armed with a spray bottle and a brazen, friendly demeanor. He sprays the spiders — which absorb the water through their skin — and, without warning, will gladly reach out and touch the quiet creatures. The lack of fear he displays reflects the exhibit’s underlying theme.
“We’re afraid mostly because we know so little about them, even though they share our world, our gardens, our homes — they’re everywhere,” Salvidar explained. “So, at least for the people that are not completely arachnophobic, they can come in here, they can get closer, they can see that spiders are not made to kill humans.”
As recently as August, Spider Pavilion was known as Butterfly Pavilion, a wholly different display of swarming winged insects that, according to Salvidar, attracted a much younger crowd than the arachnid-themed exhibition. Some butterflies can still be seen fluttering aimlessly around the pavilion, though their lives have taken on a different purpose after the transition.
“They’re food,” Salvidar said bluntly. “They’re either late-emerging butterflies that were in their chrysalises, or they’re actually butterflies that were brought in intentionally to feed the spiders.”
Brent Karner, the manager of invertebrate living collections — although he prefers “the bug guy” — is the mastermind behind the unique exhibit. He discussed how his original idea stemmed from his experience with a similar butterfly pavilion at another museum in 1992 when the intrusion of a tiny local spider into the exhibit sparked his imagination.
“Here was this little tiny orb-weaver who was trying to take down a big tropical butterfly, and I got called over and people were horrified that a spider should be eating such a pretty animal and I was intrigued by it,” Karner recalled.
It took 12 years for the dream of Spider Pavilion to come to fruition, but once Karner realized the dormant potential in the butterly exhibit — the Pavillion of Wings, itself operating since 1999 and vacant five months of the year — he began testing what would become the Spider Pavilion.
“In 2004, realizing I had this space I could try the Spider Pavilion in, I threw some spiders in, saw what it looked like, figured it would work,” Karner said. “In 2005, we opened the first Spider Pavilion. And it ended up being so darn popular that we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Karner explained that while the Halloween tie-in does help draw in thrill-seeking crowds, the purpose of the exhibit is inevitably far more educational.
“We get that group of people that actually comes here for the same reason that people often ride roller coasters — that adrenaline rush. And the fact that we put it in concert with Halloween does help. This is that time of year when it’s okay to get the crap scared out of you a little bit,” Karner said. “It is our job to then introduce them to what’s really going on in there. We don’t want people to leave with greater fear or equal fear than what they came in with.”
The exhibit closes Nov. 8, and the night before Halloween marks the final opportunity for visitors to play “flashlight tag” with the spiders after sundown — an exciting prospect. Karner relayed how wandering the enclosure at night adds “a whole new flair to it.”
“You see spiders do different things at night. They just sort of appear out of the darkness,” he said.
Other than a potentially hair-raising nighttime visit, the only truly frightening part of the Spider Pavilion might be its small
antechamber, which the curators decided to fill with 12 small enclosures borrowed from the museum’s Insect Zoo. In these glass cages lurk the arachnids that truly creep around nightmares — tarantulas and black widows, brown recluses and scorpions.
But past an unreasonably huge Brazilian salmon tarantula, which twitches against the glass walls with some imagined malicious intent, Spider Pavilion becomes benign and really quite beautiful.
“The Spider Pavilion is hopefully one small step toward changing the minds of people. Even though the fear is deep-seeded in our society, there is still an odd respect for them. There is still some intrigue we have about this animal,” Karner said.
Spider Pavilion might not cure the impulse of anyone quick to step on a house spider invading his or her space, but it is a rare opportunity to see some of nature’s most unique designs and the often colorful weavers that dot them.
And if all you’re looking for is a cheap, $2-per-student thrill in this spooky season, that skittering tarantula is more than happy to oblige.