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Butterfly Vivarium Closing Out 20th Season

by AMNH on

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Four clipper butterflies with matching wing patterns alight on a plant in the vivarium.
Spectacular sightings, like this gathering of clipper butterflies (Parthenos sylvia), await visitors to The Butterfly Conservatory.
H. Davies/©AMNH

The Butterfly Conservatory is heading into its last weekend for the season. And among the volunteers who are helping visitors spot fluttering species or explaining a butterfly behavior are three exhibit veterans, all of whom began volunteering in the vivarium when it first opened 20 years ago.


Diana Engel holds up an orange slice on which two butterflies have landed.
A large owl butterfly (Caligo eurilochus) and blue morpho (Morpho peleides) compete for an orange slice held by Diana Engel in The Butterfly Conservatory.
R. Mickens/©AMNH

“I’m one of the oldies!” says Diana Engel proudly, as two large owl butterflies perch on each of her shoulders, their camouflage eyespots drawing a crowd of children in the 1,200-square-foot vivarium on the Museum’s second floor.

Engel is one of about 120 volunteers—out of the Museum’s approximately 1,000 regular volunteers—who are dedicated to The Butterfly Conservatory. Like many volunteers, helping visitors enjoy the vivarium is not the only way Engel has contributed. A children’s book author and illustrator, she first came to the Museum to volunteer in the Exhibition Department where she applied her skills as an artist to fabricating leaves in the Hall of Biodiversity and a wolf fish model in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. But working with butterflies was a challenge Engel embraced as a chance to instill in others “how awesome and complicated creatures are.” Her hope is for visitors to leave with a greater appreciation of how important butterflies are as pollinators.


A butterfly lands on Mary as she stands smiling in the Butterfly Conservatory.
Mary Lutz enjoys a visit from an iridescent blue morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides), and explains that to tell male from female “you’d need a microscope.”
R. Mickens/©AMNH

Mary Lutz, a retired executive assistant who volunteered for 18 years before becoming a part-time paid butterfly explainer in 2016, shares Engel’s enthusiasm. “I’m still learning every time I come in. It never gets tired!” she says.


Hannah explains the contents of a vivarium display to a young visitor.
Hannah Sayah offers the finer points of butterfly pupae to a young visitor to the vivarium, a careful recreation of tropical habitat.
R. Mickens/©AMNH

Hannah Sayah, who has volunteered in The Butterfly Conservatory since 1998, came to the Museum after retiring as controller for the Council of Jewish Federations. Her favorite recollection from the past 20 years is of a British visitor who walked in and immediately attracted a butterfly which perched on her and stayed with her the entire time she walked around the vivarium. The visitor eventually told Sayah that her mother, who had recently died, had always said she wanted to come back as a butterfly.

Such a personal experience may be rare, but many visitors do feel inspired when they step into the vivarium and walk among 500 free-flying butterflies and moths.

“If people are awestruck, they might leave with a slightly different view of the world,” says Engel.


Visit The Butterfly Conservatory, which is open through Memorial Day, Monday, May 28.