Update: Audubon Nature Institute’s reimagined insectarium takes shape on the New Orleans riverfront
$34 million renovation will transform the 30-year-old aquarium site
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) -Like much of the New Orleans tourism industry, the Audubon Nature Institute was an early victim of the pandemic.
As tourism numbers crashed, Audubon announced layoffs and the temporary closure of its insectarium.
Now, an all-new facility dedicated to the world of bugs is taking shape on the New Orleans Riverfront next to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in the old IMAX Theatre space.
“We really wanted the insectarium to start with something just to blow your socks off,” said Kyle Burks, Audubon’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer as he describes a small world magnified by technology.
The aquarium renovation will cost $34 million with $7 million more to upgrade entrances, landscape and the electrical system at the adjacent Woldenberg Park.
Inside, a giant digital wall will greet visitors.
“Imagine tens of thousands of fireflies and wherever you walk, they follow you,” Burks said. “Or monarch butterflies that are migrating and wherever you stand, they fly up and over you.”
Just as in the old insectarium, entomologists will interact with guests at small terrariums, but, “with cameras that can blow it up on big screens.”
Burks said insects make up 80 percent of all the creatures on the planet.
Audubon aims to tell their story on a larger scale.
“We did want to have a chance, if we’re going to talk about the diversity of animals and the diversity of insects, you need a big space to do that.”
The insectarium will keep some old favorites, including for the culinary adventurist, the restaurant “Bug Appetite.”
Like the aquarium, the architecture is distinctly modern and in sharp contrast to the old Custom House site on Canal Street.
Exhibit space increases from 13,000 feet to 17,000 square feet.
The one exception to the larger scale is a purposely smaller butterfly exhibit.
“You can lose the butterflies up high,” Burkes said. “So now, this one has a lower experience where the butterflies will be closer to our guests.”
An Audubon Nature Institute statement describes the new and reimagined galleries:
Butterfly Pavilion - Fluttering wings and dancing colors surround visitors in this majestic butterfly garden. A dazzling array of butterfly species fly unrestricted among the live butterfly host plants. As they move from one nectar-rich flower to another, the butterflies may even come to rest briefly on a visitor’s shoulder.
WOW! - Be surprised and delighted by the scale, beauty, and wonder of the migration of species like butterflies and large gatherings of fireflies. Guests will enjoy a beautiful, constantly changing interactive experience that immerses them in changing natural environments.
Pollinators - The exhibit area focuses on the continuously developing relationship between flowering plants and insects as one of nature’s most interesting tales. Each influenced the evolution of the other over millions of years.
Healthy Soil - Insects form a critical link in the food chain. In this gallery, visitors learn how their feeding activities play important roles in waste decomposition, nutrient recycling, pollination, and natural pest control.
Bug Bayou - In New Orleans and coastal Louisiana, there are marvelous insects and spiders, many of which visitors may never have seen before. This immersion environment explores the complex web of life that exists in the swamps of Louisiana.
Fan-favorite Insectarium galleries making the move include:
Field Camp - Illustrates how researchers constantly uncover new insect species. A themed demonstration area allows visitors to touch live insects and participate in educational presentations, while puzzles, videos, and other activity stations teach visitors about the insect classification system.
Bug Appétit - Eating insects isn’t odd—it’s done the world over— and in New Orleans, it’s bound to be tasty! This cultural café gives visitors a place to satisfy their appetites and learn some of these stories from humanity’s cultural interaction with insects.
Metamorphosis - Guests will explore on their own, or through interaction with staff, the intriguing and mysterious journey that an insect takes from an egg to an adult.
Diversity - About 80% of all animal species we know of are arthropods. That means four out of every five kinds of animals on the planet are bugs. This area allows visitors to explore some of the physical adaptations that have made insects so stunningly successful.
“The mission of this place is to connect people with insects so they understand them better,” Burks said.
Audubon’s bees will get a new home with the freedom to come and go.
“Imagine a big glass-fronted area, where you can see inside a bee hive. The bees will enter and exit from outside the building, but you’ll see the inner workings on a hive here,” Burks said.
“They’ll be out gathering nectar and pollen in the park and coming up and living here inside the building.”
News of the insectarium’s closing in 2020 prompted some fears that would rank as second class among Audubon Attractions.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Burks said. “I think this is going to be probably the best insect facility you’re going to find anywhere in the world. Our hope is, as popular as the insectarium was when it first opened, that this is going to be even more popular.”
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