The Pine Cone's sixth story of the week

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A tempest in a specimen case

By KELLY NIX

Published: June 24, 2011

PACIFIC GROVE takes monarch butterflies very seriously. Anyone who “molests” the butterfly can be slapped with a $1,000 fine, and the city years ago gave itself the hokey moniker “Butterfly Town U.S.A.”

That’s why local historian Esther Trosow said she was “flabbergasted” when she went into the store at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History and discovered they were selling monarchs — dead ones.

“It’s one thing to have monarchs on display in the museum” as part of an exhibit, Trosow said. “In fact, the museum sorely needs an adequate monarch exhibit. It’s another thing to have specimens displayed as baubles in the gift shop.”

In Trosow’s opinion, though, there is little educational value in the dead butterfly display since there is nothing indicating the various species of butterflies. And, she said, it just seems tacky.

“It sends a very bad conservation message, having them for sale in that manner,” Trosow said.

Museum director Lori Mannel defended the framed butterflies in the gift shop — more than 30 in a decorative case for $850 — saying they are in line with the museum’s conservation and education vision. Besides, museum visitors requested such displays.

“We have heard from teachers who say, ‘I would love to come into the store to pick up a monarch that was environmentally collected so I can use it in the classroom as an educational [tool],’” Mannel said.

The operation that sold the museum the butterfly display farms the butterflies, though it’s not clear if the insects are made specimens after they live out their life — as at least one online dealer does — or are killed to be sold.

“This company is the first and only green certified insect display business,” Mannel said.
Trosow, who is often critical of the way the museum is run, sent out a mass email message about the framed piece after visiting the newly remodeled gift shop last week. Trosow said she’s not the only one who believes the item is inappropriate.

“I’ve had a lot of people email me, and they were really horrified,” she explained.

Trosow, who in the 1990s was the museum gift shop manager, said that the then-museum board decided zoological specimens — apart from some minerals, fossils and some plant products — would no longer be sold at the gift shop. Subsequently, all specimens — even seashells — were pulled.

“It would have been unthinkable to sell real monarchs,” she said.

Mannel said she has a receipt signed by Trosow in the mid-1990s that shows Trosow purchased a small fish specimen for the museum store that had been incorporated into a lapel pin.

Trosow said the fish in question was one of large numbers that died naturally in massive numbers in algae blooms on the Great Lakes.

“There was something on the card it was on explaining this,” she said, “so the board thought it had interpretive value. I specifically asked the board if it was OK, and they allowed me to do it. To bring this up as an excuse for a very bad decision to sell monarchs in Pacific Grove is stretching credulity.”

The framed butterfly display features two monarchs, one male and one female. Response from gift store visitors to the display has been positive, Mannel said. In fact, there are plans to offer more butterfly specimens for sale, including single monarchs, and a butterfly exhibit is scheduled for March 2012.

The framed display was introduced after a major renovation and overhaul of the museum store, which included abandoning the sale of cheap toys in favor of better quality items and crafts from local artists.

“A big part of the remodel of our store is we did want to reduce our plastic products,” Mannel said. “We wanted to have products that better reflected the museum itself and promote more sustainable living.”