Cell 25 in Block 9 of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary is now a cabinet of curiosities representing the animal life of this stabilized ruin. Specifically, it’s focused on some of the smaller residents of the former prison turned historic site: the insects.
“It is a world that’s overlooked and dismissed by most,” said Greg Cowper, a curatorial assistant in the department of entomology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Cowper’s exhibition Specimen opened in 2011 and was just renewed for another year as part of Eastern State’s art program. Vintage cigar boxes, furniture made from cell doors, large magnifying glasses, and even some recent mammalian additions from the grounds, like a mummified cat and mourning dove, give the small space the air of a wunderkammer. “I’m interested in old school kinds of museums and the cabinets of curiosities from the 15th century to 16th century up until the heyday of museums in Europe and the United States,” he explained.
While the installation records the current biodiversity of the prison, it was inspired by an inmate’s insect collection from over a century ago. When researching for a 150th anniversary exhibition of the American Entomological Society, Cowper happened on an 1890 journal that mentioned Academy of Natural Sciences curator Henry Skinner encountering a prisoner using his small exercise yard, part of the initial design of isolation and penance, to catch insects. The inmate’s name and modest collection of 18 species of moths and butterflies are now lost, but the idea of entomology from a cell stuck in Cowper’s mind until he discovered Eastern State’s art grants in 2010.
“In my thinking about this penitentiary, it’s almost like an island,” he said, noting that it’s surrounded by a wall that stretches 30 feet up and 10 feet into the ground. “Here’s an island in urban Philadelphia that continually has new species in it, and I also find stuff that I know absolutely is new for that year.”
After Eastern State was abandoned in 1971, nature took over, the trees growing as high as the cell blocks. After reopening to the public in the 1990s, it was maintained in a deteriorated state, with Cowper describing it as a “disturbed environment.” Curiously, rather than Pennsylvanian fauna, most of the 600 specimens he’s trapped and caught in his butterfly net are invasive species that arrived in the United States in the past decades.
“I like to say to people that many of the things that I have collected no inmate ever saw,” he stated. “I think part of it is in disturbed environments, there’s just not much diversity in terms of plants within the landscape, and the topography is kind of conducive to these invasive species.”
That’s not to say what’s thriving isn’t rich in variety and continually offering surprises to Cowper as he explores every couple of weeks. In 2013, he found Carolina locusts in the grass that had likely flown in over the walls, and in 2014 first spotted the Asian resin bee. He notes that “one cool spin off of the project” is “empowering the staff [at Eastern State] to be citizen scientists,” showing them how to use containers and create labels, so that the staff refrigerator often doubles as insect storage. Now he’s keeping an eye on the purple cliff brake fern that thrives on the mortar of the prison walls, to see if the dragonflies or butterflies resting on the fern’s leaves use the plant as part of their cycles. “The exhibit is always going to be in flux because I’m collecting new things and cycling them in and out,” he said, so any visit to Specimen will reflect the evolving ecology of the prison in decay.