Long-armed beetles, beautifully preserved butterflies and an eerie sea demon await you at the new Insect Asylum museum (2870 N. Milwaukee Ave.), launching Saturday, May 14, in Avondale. Ahead of the grand opening, which also features a live sloth and musical performances, proprietor Nina Salem introduced us to the space’s new residents.
The museum features Salem’s collection of preserved insects and other animal taxidermy built over a lifetime of ethically sourced collecting. Salem and partners also plan to rent the space out for events and host field trips and classes. You can get $35 grand opening tickets here.
Insect Asylum’s proprietor has been collecting bits of nature her entire life. “I grew up as a child in the woods,” said Salem, who was raised in a log house in Massachusetts. “I am autistic and so when I see animals and insects, I can feel very grounded to them. When the world was spiraling out of control for me, I would just go outside … and watch all the tiny, little things that you can see.”
Salem, who now splits her time between Brighton Park and an apartment behind the museum, said she found the ideal Insect Asylum location in Avondale. “The space is beautiful, the neighborhood is incredible, and the support that we’re receiving is absolutely phenomenal.”
The storefront, appropriately located across the street from Monarch Thrift Shop (2875 N. Milwaukee Ave.) and near curiosity-filled coffee shop The Brewed, also provides an improved space for Salem’s collection. Her insects, taxidermy, and other artwork and objects previously occupied her apartment in Insect Asylum’s prior incarnation. Salem would also take items on the road for school and park presentations. We met a few of her fascinating creatures in a recent tour.
Long Arm Of The Beetle
The long-armed beetle, a member of the scarab family, fascinates Salem because of an odd sexual dimorphism. Males have their spines fixed, Salem explained, while the females can move them around. “I think they’re really underrated because they look freaky and long, but they’re so strong,” she said.
While these beetles originate in Greece, Salem’s specimen comes to the Insect Asylum from a hidden stash several states away. Entomologist Steve Kitzner had gone to live in the woods, storing his beetle trove in his house’s walls, to be discovered by the home’s next owners.
At the same time, Salem said, “I had said to the universe, I need more beetles in my life!” She found an ad for Kitzner’s collection on Facebook Marketplace, listed at a spot 15 minutes from her Chicago apartment. But the beetles, the walls that housed them and Kitzner’s old digs were all over in South Dakota. Someone had errantly posted the ad in Chicago.
As luck, fate or the insect gods would have it, though, Salem happened to have a South Dakota trip planned with friends that week. The $300 she’d saved for the trip paid exactly for the bug collection, so her friends picked it up on Salem’s behalf.
Enormous Pairs Of Wings
Two impressive butterflies met us next on the tour: Africa’s largest butterfly, the giant African swallowtail, and the second biggest swallowtail, the giant blue swallowtail. At 22 centimeters wing to wing and armed with a toxin, the giant swallowtail has no natural predators, Salem said.
Salem got the swallowtail from a Virginia woman’s collection, which was set to be thrown out before a friend mentioned Salem. Most of the creatures in her collection, Salem got through similar means: searching online or having friends mention her.
A chunk of Insect Asylum’s collection comes from entomologist A.J. Route, who did much of his work in Massachusetts, hand-catching insects around Walden Pond — yes, that Walden Pond, of beloved naturalist Henry David Thoreau fame. Salem’s own woodsy upbringing, it turns out, took place about 15 minutes from the iconic pond. “It was really cool to have a piece of family history home,” she said.
A Sea Spirit Haunts Insect Asylum
Another prized Salem specimen comes from a much larger body of water. This mummified sea creature, a so-called “Jenny Haniver” stingray, stands upright and peers out at you like an alien being. Amsterdam sailors learned to prepare stingrays like this from Fijian tribes, Salem said.
“They were made to resemble demons and dragons and mermaids. So they’re water spirits,” she said. “They’re supposed to ward off evil.”
Salem got her own incarnation of this extremely rare specimen from a man who’d bought a toolbox from an estate sale. The box, it turns out, stored a Haniver, which alarmed the buyer’s family. “His wife thought it was possessed, and she wanted it out of the house,” Salem said.
An Artist Of The Natural World
Salem considers herself an artist, not a scientist, though much of her work clearly blends the two disciplines. Trained in molecular gastronomy, Salem worked for years as a pastry chef. The insect collecting stretched from childhood to today, including a necessary rebuild of her collection after flood damage about 10 years ago.
In addition to preparatory work with Insect Asylum’s specimens, including butterfly pinning and bone articulation, Salem paints and creates mortuary jewelry, working with ashes or hair of loved ones who’ve passed. She has also put together art installations at galleries and homes across the city, including a large one in recent years at Ars Memoria in Ravenswood called “Bug Out Chicago.”
Insect Asylum Will Be A Community Center — With Taxidermy!
Salem’s first storefront museum will expand what she and her team of artists and artisans can do. They’re looking to host classes, arts events and readings and offer rental activity space. Insect Asylum’s basement now also houses the woodworking shop of Salem’s partner, Lane Huitt, along with a taxidermy and wet specimen lab.
Saturday’s grand opening will feature more of Salem’s creative friends, including burlesque performer India Yvee DeMinuit and musician Vince Filippone. You can also expect to meet a live sloth and owls and see a live insect demonstration. The event follows a soft opening on Earth Day that attracted about 50 excited visitors.
Salem encouraged community members to visit opening day and beyond. “The more people that come in and view the museum, the better we can make the museum,” she said. “I just want to keep all these items safe and protected so that people in the future can really appreciate and understand them.”
Featured photo: Francisco Hernandez