My dear friend Caroline (fellow folk music enthusiast and also the lovely lady who I co-run The Badger Set with) recently asked me for some tips on how to make an authentic museum display for an art exhibition she’ll be holding soon. As many people seem to find the photographs I’ve taken at the Natural History Museum interesting (and it seemed a good excuse for me to delve into my own personal archive of photos taken there for a trip down memory lane!), I thought I’d share the hints and tips that I’m giving her here!
My time at the museum was spent entirely in the entomology department, wherein I got to help out in various sections, the main ones being: Hemiptera (true bugs), Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) and Coleoptera (beetles). I got to handle a great deal of specimens when working with the Lepidoptera Collections Manager, and likewise, whilst working with the Coleoptera Collections Manager.
The majority of specimens I came across were mounted on pins, however, they are preserved in a variety of ways, such as in fluid or as microscope slides (such as the genitalia slides that I digitized!). I spent a lot of time moving pinned Cossidae specimens from old drawers into new drawers, simultaneously taking many self-portraits and forcing other people in the collections area to listen to my music (guess what? Some people don’t like folk music! Who knew?), which thankfully, the collections manager was happy for me to do.
Simply moving the specimens to new drawers involved several small jobs, most of which are helpful illustrated in the amazingly dorky photograph of myself below (incidentally, it was taken on the very same day that I took Moths’ Wings).
First off, the new drawers were cleaned: the glass was sprayed (note the small green bottle on the desk to the left and the roll of blue paper towels on the desk to the right) and the drawers themselves were lightly ‘banged’ to dislodge any bits that had crowded inside. Next, the moths which were being moved were marked (as a general rule, the glass cases were marked with a felt pen, indicating which moths under the glass should be removed from the drawer; this obviously isn’t something that someone with identification skills would necessarily need).
New labels were made in advance (genus, species, the author who described the species and the year it was described), which would be cut before being pinned. There are various ways of doing this (depending upon the preferences of the curator for the collection), but as a general rule (in my experience!) they will be pinned beneath the insect.
Any “historic” labels are pinned separately when possible, as in the next photo. These will often contain detailed information about where the specimen was collected and who collected it (though sometimes the information is more vague than is preferable!). If you’re like me, you’ll love seeing the various styles of calligraphy and discoloured paper…
Next? The moths were moved!
Lots of the specimens are rather fragile and delicate, so it’s really important to be extremely careful. Sometimes I’d use my fingers instead of forceps because it helped me to keep a steadier hand (but because some of the pins were broken or the ends of the pins were very close to the specimens, I couldn’t do this all the time). Sometimes we moved them straight into new drawers, and sometimes they were moved into “unit trays”. Always, we used a long piece of cardboard to help us move them in straight lines (which the next photo doesn’t help to depict all that well!).
Unit trays are plastic boxes with plastazote glued to the bottom. They enable organisation and grouping of specimens (see above) and come in several different sizes to help fit in the drawer more effeciently. If you look at the dorky photo of me again you’ll see where they’re stored – the big green bin and the big white bin under the desk on the right are both full of unit trays. There are lots of different sizes of unit trays, and in this particular area there’s a big bin for each kind!
Some of the specimens were so old and rickety that they needed to be repinned (as you can see from the photo above, many of them came from rather crowded drawers and had already fallen off of their pins when we came to get them from the old drawers!), as well as a couple of them having exploded from the insides from rather overpowering cases of verdigris…
An extremely important part of moving these specimens was that the collections we moved contained more than a fair few type specimens. If you don’t know, type specimens are the first examples of a particular species to be described and named: they are the specimens which are referred to when assessments or further identification need to be made. If you want to listen to a fun song about types by John Hinton then click here! Obviously, as the first examples they are often rather old and need extra special care.
Unfortunately, I haven’t really got much proof of the finished drawers of moths that I helped to curate! There must be a big part of me that likes the crowded specimen drawers (it reminds me a little of the amazing case of birds that is on display in the museum).
I was planning on including photographs and information about the collection of weevils (collected by Oldřich Voříšek) that I helped to move into the collection at the museum but I’ve decided to save it for another entry. Weevils are my insect of choice (I’m a fool for a charming rostrum) so it seems fitting to give them their very own post.
Please follow the link if you’re interested in seeing more photos taken at the Natural History Museum. Also, please look at the Natural History Museum website, which is full of wonderful facts and links, not least of all information about the current temporary exhibitions and a calendar showing which Nature Live talks are coming up. If you’re interested in further reading around entomology, then I would thoroughly recommend having a look around Richard Jones’ blog, especially the How to be a Curious Entomologist posts and his Heath Robinson Entomology list (“Cheap home-made alternatives for the citizen scientist”) as well as the wonderful Beetle Blog on the Natural History Museum website.
Hope you enjoyed this miniature voyage into the NHM’s Lepidoptera Collection. Are you interested in entomology? Have you got a favourite insect? Let me know!