It’s an art installation that is a science museum within a historical museum. Greg Cowper is a curatorial assistant in the department of entomology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. He also has a cell at Eastern State Penitentiary, which was abandoned for decades and then opened to the public as a historical site. The exhibited called Greg Cowper: Specimen is a showcase of insects caught on the prison grounds over the past few years, displayed in objects that real prisoners used, on furniture made from parts of the prison. The overall effect is that of a hundred-year-old display of an inmate’s hobby, and in fact was inspired by such a collection. At the same time, Cowper is learning about the types of insects that take over when an institution is left to nature.
“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.
(Image credit: Greg Cowper)