• Ian Rose's five-year-old son can't get enough of spiders, the latest of his "obsessive enthusiasms." (Stuart Humphreys/Australian Museum)
A new museum exhibition showcasing our creepy eight-legged friends could help arachnophobes overcome their darkest fears.
By
Kemal Atlay

28 Oct 2016 - 3:45 PM  UPDATED 28 Oct 2016 - 3:45 PM

Starting from tomorrow, visitors of the Australian Museum in Sydney can experience the creepy, crawly world of spiders in a brand new exhibition called Spiders – Alive and Deadly.

It will allow visitors to get up close and personal with 15 live spiders and over 400 specimens from the museum’s arachnology collection. This includes notorious species like tarantulas, wolf spiders and redback spiders.

Catherine Timbrell, exhibition manager at the Australian Museum, says the exhibit will provide a unique, immersive way to not only educate people about arachnids, but also help them to confront their fears.

“In the spider world of ‘eat or be eaten,’ we encourage visitors to marvel at the clever techniques used by predators of all sizes – including little-known defence mechanisms such as mimicry and noise-making – to hunt and kill their next meal from ambush and suffocation to camouflage, super senses and cannibalism,” she says.

But can you really confront your fears at a museum exhibit?

Fighting fear with facts

Dr Sophie Li, a clinical psychologist from UNSW with extensive experience in treating arachnophobes, tells SBS Science a museum visit provides opportunities to educate people about their fear of the creepy crawlies.

“One of the main treatment elements for an arachnophobic person is to have proper, accurate, factual information about spiders,” she says. “Often their beliefs are very incorrect about how spiders behave, how threatening spiders are and how toxic they are.”

Li, who was consulted about various aspects of the exhibit, explains that the museum experience indeed provides a lot of valuable information – but it’s not the same as proper treatment.

For people with arachnophobia and similar severe anxiety disorders, the most common intervention is exposure therapy, which usually starts with simple tasks such as looking at pictures of spiders, and building up to a physical confrontation.

“[It’s] usually delivered in a graded fashion, where the initial task would be manageable for the person and provoke an amount of anxiety that that person would be able to manage,” she says.

“It’s definitely the most effective form of treatment for arachnophobia – some studies have shown that 89% of people treated with exposure therapy have shown clinically significant improvements and those are maintained for at least 12 months.”

Diving right in

If your arachnophobia is untreated it’s probably not a great idea to start with a full-on immersive experience, because it’s harder to manage the resulting anxiety, according to Li.

Amongst the features of the exhibition is an augmented reality experience of the Tasmanian Cave Spider’s subterranean lair, a live venom-milking demonstration in the Venom Lab, and a chance to compete in a mating dance ritual with the vividly coloured Peacock Spider.

However, it’s a great opportunity for those who are already undergoing therapy – or aren’t too terrified of the spiders in the first place. Li explains that because it’s not always easy to find spider specimens in the natural environment to perform exposure tasks with, she hopes people with arachnophobia and psychologists will make the most of the exhibit while it lasts.

“This is a perfect opportunity for those people who have already gone through a formal process of learning how to do the exposure to continue practising their skills.”

Spiders – Alive & Deadly is on at the Australian Museum in Sydney from 28 October until 17 July 2017.

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