My dear young fellow,” the Old-Green-Grasshopper said gently, “there are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t started wondering about yet.”

The words of Roald Dahl’s Grasshopper from James and the Giant Peach invites its hero to discover the secret lives of insects, writes Oxford University’s Franziska Kohlt.

But what if the very thought of them gives you the creeps? Then you’re in for a surprise.

However you feel about them, insects have always fascinated us humans. Egyptians worshipped them as gods, they inspired the most famous scientists in history, and they are characters in some of our favourite stories – they become deeply woven into our culture.

But we also depend on insects for healthy environments and our own survival. Alarmingly, recent headlines tell us about entomologists’ warnings that if insects disappear, so do the vital services they provide us and our environment, putting us all in danger.

Despite their importance, insects are often portrayed as objects of terror and spreaders of disease, yet a quieter revolution has been happening for over 150 years in the stories we read to our children, in which insects have slowly conquered the role of heroes to challenge these negative attitudes.

This is the topic of our new exhibition which explores how the little things that run the world inspired such famous children’s writers as Lewis Carroll, Dahl, and M.G Leonard – award-winning author of the Beetle Boy trilogy.

In the exhibition, visitors turn into explorers themselves, and can uncover the secret histories of children’s literature’s most famous creepy crawlies – for instance Lewis Carroll’s famous Caterpillar. The Oxford author’s private library contained numerous books on entomology – the science of insects – a popular pastime for Victorian gentlemen, entomology was also a common subject in children’s books which provided the models for John Tenniel’s illustrations for the Looking-Glass insects. These originals, and much more, can be found in the drawers of a replica Victorian entomologist’s desk – where you can also find out where Disney went wrong in its depiction of the Caterpillar.

But it’s not only about the Victorians: more recent authors, like Roald Dahl wrote about insects and his first drafts for the story – originally meant to be about a different fruit entirely – shows how much research went into the portrayal of those little characters

Many surprising facts about insects – real and fantastical – are dotted around the museum to be discovered in an in-house bug hunt.

Curators Franziska Kohlt and Chris Jeffs trace the history of literary insects through the Victorian Age of exploration to today, through giant illustrations and interactive displays, combining literature and science to show how we can not only save insects, but also the planet.

Numerous special events will bring the exhibition to life, with real living insects of the Travelling Insectarium, and workshops with hyper-realist illustrator Carim Nahaboo, whose artwork will be on show. Author events and talks on J.R.R. Tolkien’s entomology of Middle-Earth by literary scholar Dimitra Fimi and the real and fantastic metamorphoses of insects of Lewis Carroll by the curators round off the programme – so that there is certainly lots for everyone to discover!

It is more important now than ever that we form a relationship and attitude to the natural world, or we risk losing it.

Insects Through the Looking-Glass is at the Story Museum, Pembroke Street, Oxford, until July 7

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