CHICAGO -- Every displayed item has a story at The Insect Asylum, a vintage taxidermy museum in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood. Owner and founder Nina Salem has spent years curating her massive collection of pinned insects and mounted animals, some dating back to the early 1900's.
"I could tell you where every single rock and stone was found," said Salem. "Everything has its own life to it both before death and after death."
One unique specimen on display is a Jenny Haniver stingray, which Salem acquired in 2020. The mummified creature looks almost humanlike and the history of its form stretches back to 1518.
"The 'Jenny Haniver' was made by the Fijian tribes in order to ward off demons and dragons," said Salem. "Now we have one hanging in our museum."
Salem says one thing that separates the Insect Asylum from larger museums is that most of the items can be physically touched as opposed to being behind glass. A taxidermied giraffe named Long John is one of many exhibits with a 'green dot,' denoting that it can be touched by museum visitors.
"The very first thing we do is say, "make sure you touch the giraffe," said Salem. "When people find out that you can physically touch the taxidermy here, their faces light up."
The museum also boasts a collection of live insects courtesy of Lucca Dana-Coulon, The Insect Asylum's Resident Entomologist. Dana-Coulon says that visiting the museum is a chance for the public to interact with insects in a more positive way than they normally would.
"The main relations we've built with insects as a society has been mainly through the lens of horror or through the lens of extermination," said Dana-Coulon. "We just don't have a relation to these creatures despite how massively important they are."
"It's a great chance to come in and learn about these species that we need to survive," said Carson Edfors, the museum's Specimen Director. "Insects are an essential part of our ecosystem."
Another thing that makes The Insect Asylum unique is that it holds special hours to accommodate children and adults with sensory processing difficulties. Salem and the rest of her team have autism and she said they operate as a team in educating the public about animals and insects because it's a subject they love.
"Anything animal, insect, plant, or nature; my brain is just like a rocket ship," said Salem. "It's more than just a hobby; this was my hyper focus."
For more information on the Insect Asylum, visit their website at theinsectasylum.com