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. 
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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.

Welcome to our new Entomology department blog!

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) will be closed to members of the public for a year from January 1st 2013 as work is undertaken to restore the glass roof to its former glory.

However, behind the scenes, life will be carrying on much as normal.

Members of staff from the entomology department will be blogging about what is going on behind closed doors, hopefully keeping people in touch and up to date on news, views and fun things to do with both the department and the wider worlds of museums and entomology as a whole.