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The Elephant in the Room

The Museums Association (MA) recently held their annual Conference and Exhibition at the EICC. Reported to be the largest gathering of museums and heritage professionals in Europe, it showcases  suppliers, hosts workshops and various meetings. Darren Mann of the HEC was there as a speaker to present a talk entitled ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ which tackles some of the difficult questions that are currently being raised about the future of natural history collections in the UK.

Elephant hawkmoth, Lepidoptera, Sphingidae, Deilephila elpenor
Elephant hawkmoth, Deilephila elpenor

What questions are those? Well, here is the background in a nutshell :

“Natural history collections are under threat but are vital for taxonomic research, environmental monitoring and education.
The number of specialist curators is declining, so should collections be redistributed to centres of excellence or are there other solutions for orphaned collections?”

The main question that is raised by this is- How do we prevent the loss of these collections? and it is one that is very much on the minds of all natural history curators at the moment as we hear of more collections being ‘moth-balled’ (put away into storage) and the loss of curators through redundancies or down-sizing, leaving many collections without people to care for them, interpret them or make them available for research.

The biggest threat of course, comes to the collections themselves which may become damaged or lost altogether through poor storage and lack of care. For example, any item with fur, feather or chitin (e.g. taxidermy mounts or insect specimens) are open to attack from a host of pests including the one most reviled by curators, Anthrenus, which whilst being a rather pretty little beetle, views an insect collection as an assemblage of tasty snacks.

Anthrenus verbasci, Coleoptera, Dermestidae, beetle, insect
The Varigated Carpet Beetle, Anthrenus verbasci (Linnaeus, 1767).
Anthrenus, Coleoptera, Dermestidae, beetle, insect, damage
An example of the damage that Anthrenus can cause to an insect collection. This level of damage can occur within 2-4 years of a collection being ‘moth-balled’ if it is not in secure pest-proof storage or being regularly checked by a trained curator.

In a round up of the problems associated with deciding the future of these collections, Darren Mann pointed out that despite their huge popularity with the general public there has been a movement in the museums sector away from natural history and towards the arts and social sciences. To put some perspective on this, the Ashmolean Museum recently spent £7.83 million on Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus. For the same amount of money the entire UK entomological collections* of over 10 million specimens could have been re-housed and systematically arranged in modern pest proof storage.
The Museums Association will be holding a ‘Vox Pop’ later this week to try and gain some insight into this situation. See the Museums Journal on-line for more information.
See here for a wider view on museum closures across the sector.
*Outside of National and University Museums. 

Well, oil be

Now is the time of year to look out for the Rugged Oil Beetle Meloe mediterraneus and Oxfordshire can boast being one of this species hotspots in the UK. BugLife, the invertebrate conservation organisation, has been collating distribution data and promoting the conservation of the British oil beetles, all of which are in decline.

meloe rugosus, beetle, insect, OUMNH, HEC, meloidae
A female Rugged Oil Beetle, Meloe mediterraneus (Family Meloidae)
This group of insects has benefitted greatly from increased public awareness and with the help of newly recruited recorders we now have a much better understanding of the groups distribution across the UK.
Out of eight species of Oil beetle that have been recorded in the UK, four are thought to be extinct*. Of the remaining four species, two are relatively common: the Black Oil Beetle, Meloe proscarabaeus and the Violet Oil Beetle, Meloe violaceus. The other two, the Short-Necked Oil Beetle Meloe brevicollis and the Rugged Oil Beetle Meloe mediterraneus however are very rare.
All four species are important idicators of solitary bee populations as they are dependant on the bees for their own reproduction. Their lifecycle is pretty exciting really but is a little complicated at first glance. Here’s a simplified version to explain how the bees come into it all:
  1. A female oil beetle digs a burrow and fills it with hundered of eggs.
  2. The eggs hatch and the larvae emerge. These are called triungulia** and exhibit unique co-operative behaviour.
  3. The larvae gather on flower heads, forming living pyramids so as to enable them to hitch a lift on solitary bees visiting the flowers.
  4. The bee unwittingly transports its passengers and ultimately with a little luck, they end up in a female bees burrow. At which point they hop off and make themselves at home.
  5. The larvae eat the eggs of the bee, along with any stores of pollen and nectar.
  6. The larvae develops in the burrow, eventually emerging as an adult ready to look for a mate.

The short story? The more adult Meloe that are seen then the more bees there are.

Obviously it is more complicated than this and a whole wealth of further information can be found on the BugLife website, along with links to the recording scheme, identification guides and the Oil Beetle Conservation Project.
Staff at the HEC have been helping by identifying and providing data on specimens from Museums across the UK, as seen in this recent news article.
*within the UK; not worldwide.
** their name comes from the fact that they have three claws on each foot.

Imaging the Lepidoptera Type collection

We have over 4,000 Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) types in the HEC. For the past two and a half years we have been working on a project to database and image all of the specimens so as to make them accessible to everyone the world over.

type, butterfly, Lepidoptera, OUMNH, HEC

 All of these specimens are special because they are types. Most of them are of historical value as well. The specimen above is over 100 years old and still looks as good as it did the day that it was collected, thanks to the careful care and attention it has been given by past curators here at the museum.

Our photographer, Katherine Child, has been working tirelessly to produce plates of each specimen and its associated labels. The finished database, which will be going on-line sometime in the near future, will hold all the information that researchers need in order to study species morphology and distribution. More than this though, it will hold the thousands of photographs of these beautiful insects for anyone to browse through at their leisure.