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U of T faculty lend expertise on ROM exhibit challenging our phobia of spiders

Spiders: Fear and Fascination, the new exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), challenges one of the most common phobias in western society (photo by Sean McCann)

Knowing that students were afraid of the many pictures of spiders in her office, Maydianne Andrade, a professor and vice-dean at the University of Scarborough, started to have meetings in the library instead.

“Their biology, their anatomy, their behaviour – everything is foreign to us,” says Andrade, a world-renowned expert on the mating habits of cannibalistic spiders.

“It’s different and it’s novel and it’s alien. And yet, they live on this planet and are integral parts of our ecology and food web.”

She finds spiders capitvating, but many people don't. Challenging fear of spiders, one of the most common phobias in western society, is a key goal of Spiders: Fear and Fascination, the new exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), on display until Jan. 6.

A look at the ROM exhibit, which also includes 20 displays of live spiders (photo by Brian Boyle)

The exhibit travelled from the Australian Museum, where it is titled Spiders – Alive and Deadly (deadly is slang for “great” in Australia).  Douglas Currie, an associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at U of T and vice-president of the department of natural history at the ROM, played a pivotal role in bringing the exhibit to Toronto.

“A lot of people declared they would never visit the exhibit,” says Currie. “But with the way it’s laid out, people do feel sort of emboldened to come down and explore it – and come out better for it, I think.”

Andrade, who is also a research associate of the ROM, says fear of spiders is likely learned. From the time Andrade’s two kids were in kindergarten, she gave yearly outreach presentations with spiders in their classes and only a few children appeared afraid in the early years. But this comfort is precarious, she says. “All it takes is for one or two adults to show an aversive response in the presence of a child for the child to develop this aversion as well.”

The ROM exhibit includes the Golden Cape (pictured left), the largest piece of cloth made entirely out of spider silk. It is only the second time the garment, made from the silk of 1.2 million Golden Orb spiders, has been exhibited (photo by Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley)

The exhibit, which features more than 400 live and preserved spiders, invites visitors to confront their misconceptions and fears.

Several components were added for the Canadian version of the display, many of which came from the ROM’s own collection. A dreamcatcher (which is modelled on spider webs) and a spider-themed Lakota saddlebag were added as examples of the significance of spiders in Indigenous cultures. Visitors can also find an art piece on loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario depicting Anansi, an African folktale character that often appears as a spider.

As part of the exhibit, Andrade gave a talk on spider mating habits, with a focus on Black Widows. The talk was titled Through a Web Darkly, a nod to the 1961 film Through a Glass Darkly, in which a woman hallucinates that God is a spider living under her wallpaper. Andrade began her lecture by talking about spiders in popular culture, saying negative media representations likely play a role in learning to fear spiders.

For a contemporary element, and as a relatively rare example of positive representations, the exhibit includes the original Marvel comic books where Spider-Man, Spider-Woman and Black Widow first appeared.

“Spider-Man’s abilities are based on things spiders can actually do, and if you were to scale them up to Spider-Man size, I think they would do even more spectacular things than he does,” says Andrade.

Currie says his favourite parts of the exhibit are the 20 displays of live spiders, including the Spider Lab, where twice a day guests can watch as spiders and scorpions are milked for their venom, which is used for biomedical research. Visitors can then speak with the exhibit’s “Spider Wranglers.”

“That’s sort of an interactive element that you don’t often see,” says Currie. "So is the fact that we have live specimens.

“This is something that you normally find in a zoo, but not in a museum setting.”

He says the reception for the exhibit has been great so far.  

“A major part of any exhibit is not only to inform visitors about the diversity and biology of spiders, but dispel any misconceptions,” says Currie. “If we can fill that role and encourage people to come and challenge their fears, then we’ve done a very important part of our job.”