Where else could you combine the science of forensic entomology and a hit television series? The Miami Science Museum delivers "CSI: Crime Scene Insects," curated by Dr. M. Lee Goff, an internationally renowned expert in the field and the inspiration behind the character Gil Grissom on the TV show.
Forensic entomology is the study of insects in criminal matters and is primarily associated with death investigations. The science is also used to detect drugs and poisons in murder cases. It can also be employed in determining the location of an incident.
The exhibit contains examples of what investigators study when insects are present at a crime scene, and even boasts a re-creation of a courtroom scene, placing spectators in a jury box as Dr. Goff delivers expert testimony at a murder trial on a pair of video screens.
The show opens with a taped message from Goff and William Peterson, whose CSI character, Gil Grissom, is obsessed with bugs. The exhibit spotlights nearly a dozen free-standing displays brimming with information and interactive components designed to explain how entomologists and law enforcement officials use insects to help solve crimes.
Near the entrance, wall text informs that flies helped solve a murder in ancient China. The earliest record of forensic entomology dates to 1235 A.D., when Sung Tz'u described a case in his book The Washing Away of Wrongs. At a Chinese village, a peasant was found hacked to death by a hand sickle that was used by workers to cut rice. A local magistrate gathered suspects in the town square and asked them to bring their sickles.
Once assembled, the men were asked to place their hand tools on the ground before them and step away a few feet. As those gathered waited under a blistering sun, metallic blowflies swooped down on a sickle, attracted by remaining bits of human tissue that were barely discernible. Damned by the evidence, the tool's owner confessed to his butchery.
Several displays explore how modern forensic scientists use insects to solve crimes. In a Texas murder case, a grasshopper led to a suspect's conviction. The bug's remains were discovered next to the deceased victim, but its spindly left leg was missing. The grasshopper's appendage was later found in the suspect's pants cuff. The fracture lines of the leg perfectly matched the insect found at the crime scene, erasing the possibility the severed limb belonged to another bug.
Visitors can observe real crime scene insects, including carrion beetles, demisted (flesh-eating) beetles, blowflies, and maggots. The exhibit also features fiberglass models of human bodies in decomposition and a noggin-addling stroboscopic sculpture that depicts the life cycle of a fly — the first witness to many crimes.
Visitors are invited to explore the five stages of decomposition to discover the role insects play in the natural progression from stage to stage and how vital it is for investigators to understand the process. One display includes a film showing a dead domestic pig being ravaged by swarms of critters as the carcass rots over several days. On view nearby are insect aspirators, forceps, jars, and other tools forensic entomologists use.
Another unusual station features open morgue drawers containing medical models of cadavers. One of the plastic stiffs represents the human body in the bloated stage. Its ripe avocado-green complexion is marred by an exposed cavity in its face and blowflies creeping in and out of its nose.
Even more grisly is the corpse below it, appearing in an advanced state of decay, its torso mottled a purplish yellow. A video screen embedded in its chest boils over with thousands of maggots scrumming for bits of putrid flesh.
On an adjacent wall, a macabre bit of text informs that maggots actually helped clear confusion at the scene of what detectives suspected was a violent crime. The badly decomposed body of a woman was discovered in her home next to walls streaked with blood. Initially, the blood splatter led police to believe the woman had been bludgeoned to death. Then the bug experts arrived. Upon closer examination, they determined the blood had streaked up rather than down the walls. Apparently, maggots attempting to leave the cadaver after their fill tried to climb the walls, only to slide back onto the remains.
A pair of hair-raising displays invites fledgling gumshoes to walk through re-creations of other crimes that bugs helped solve. In the "Cane Field Case," spectators walk over rubber matting emblazoned with the image of a young boy's decomposing body in a rural cane field. The youngster lies bare-chested on the ground, face down with multiple bruises and a stab wound. Forensic entomologists found two types of flies infesting his corpse, helping determine the timeline and place of his death. Muscoid and flesh flies — both indoor species — had been feasting on the body for five days. Oriental latrine flies — an outdoor species — had been at the corpse for only four days. They helped police conclude the victim had been killed elsewhere and later dumped in the field.
Equally baffling to law enforcers was the "Grand Canyon Case," in which a man and woman were discovered dead in the desert. Autopsies revealed they drowned. Graphic, life-size photos depict their torn-up bodies. Charts and other information indicate investigators deduced that the woman fell and broke her leg, and her companion climbed down the canyon to rescue her. While stranded at the bottom together, they succumbed to a freak flash flood, and the bugs didn't arrive until the water subsided. It's another weird case that insects helped close.
Despite the sometimes unsavory nature of the subject matter, children and adults alike packed the museum on a recent weekday. All were attempting to use their newfound forensic skills to solve mock crimes.
For true crime buffs, fans of the CSI TV episodes, and anyone else interested in learning how creepy-crawlies can land a perp in the clinker, this is a show with plenty to buzz about.
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