Unravelling the Golden Thread: The Silk and Cocoon Collection at the Manchester Museum

Written by Piotr Korpak, Visitor Team Assistant, Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester.

Last August saw the Manchester Museum entering the final phase of its capital project called hello future when it closed to the public for over a year, until February 2023. Major redevelopments like this tend to be quite stressful for most institutions, but also bring a lot of excitement and many valuable opportunities for individuals. Being closed to the public meant no visitors and so I was able to support work in other departments. Always interested in natural history collections, I welcomed the chance to work with the Curatorial Team in the Entomology Department with true delight.

The Museum’s arthropod collections are amongst the top three in the UK, with over 3 million specimens, out of which about 2.5 million are insects (Logunov and Merriman, 2012). As is the case with many museums, the collections are vast, the staff numbers small, and it can be difficult for curators to catch up with the backlog of past acquisitions and historic materials. No doubt one could find boxes, cabinets, and all other imaginable storage units full of specimens still awaiting their official accessioning, cataloguing, research, and digitisation in any museum.

My ‘personal treasure’ occupies an antique wooden cabinet with 26 drawers and is known as ‘F3230. Silk and cocoon collection’. With a definite weak spot for Lepidoptera and a long-standing interest in the intersection between nature and culture, I was particularly happy to work on this task.

Fig. 1. Silk and cocoon collection cabinet in the Entomology Department at the Manchester Museum. © The Manchester Museum

Although likely being acquired by the Museum before 1900, the work on the collection only started in 2019, when it was rehoused from old, disintegrating cardboard boxes into clear plastic containers, though some of the bulkiest items had to be left in plastic bags. At that time, a paper catalogue was also created, and each item received its individual accession number. The paper catalogue was then used to create entries in the Museum’s database. I started working with the collection at this stage and the idea behind the project is to revise the records, photograph each item, research the collection, and prepare a publication about it. The process is still ongoing and essentially gives me a chance to learn collections management practices and different curation techniques on the go.

Fig. 2. An open drawer showing the rehoused collection, in this case some of the cocoons of the mulberry silkworm moth (Bombyx mori). © The Manchester Museum

I began with photographing each accessioned item. After a few weeks I had nearly 400 photographs which needed renaming according to the accession number, editing, and uploading into the Museum’s database. As I was editing the images and reading through the labels, I realized that some of the records were not quite correct. At the same time the taxonomy summary of the collection printed from the database showed many accessions as undetermined, where it was possible to identify these specimens at least to the genus level based on the information from the labels. For instance, the type of silk known as tasar (or tussur, tussore, tussah, and many other variations) is only made from cocoons of Antheraea species (Peigler, 1993; Omkar, 2017).

Fig. 3. Tasar silk cocoons (top left), raw silk (bottom), and woven fabric (top right) from India (Antheraea sp.). © The Manchester Museum

Not all labels are that clear and obvious, however. As pleasing to the eye as it is, the 19th century handwriting can be extremely hard to read, especially when one is not particularly familiar with the terminology being used. Often carelessly written on scraps of paper, the labels might just state an outdated species name without the genus or some obscure localities impossible to put on a map. The issue with old labels like these is that the names they include are often transliterated from non-European languages, according to the collector’s idea at the time. Obviously, each collector would have had their own way of spelling foreign names or terms in English and so I wish you best of luck trying to decipher these a hundred years later! Luckily, we have World Wide Web now which, after much searching, enabled me to uncover most of the locality enigmas.

Fig. 4. Originally accessioned as cocoons of one species, Actias selene, on closer inspection it becomes clear that this accession consists of three separate species: A. selene omeishana from Western China, Philosamia insularis (now Samia insularis) from Manila, The Philippines, and Attacus aurantiacus from Kei Islands, Indonesia. © The Manchester Museum

Similarly, it was possible to identify 5 additional species, previously listed as undetermined or accessioned with another species in a mixed gathering, likely due to the label being unclear.

In order to analyse the collection, I have prepared a taxonomic list of all accessions, where the names are updated following the classification of Bombycoidea by Kitching et al., 2018.

After the initial analysis it can be said that the silk and cocoon collection housed at the Manchester Museum represents 2 families (Bombycidae and Saturniidae), 12 genera (Bombyx, Archaeoattacus, Attacus, Callosamia, Hyalophora, Rothschildia, Samia, Actias, Antheraea, Cricula, Loepa and Saturnia) and 30 species of silk moths. There are 5,315 specimens or objects listed under 270 accessions, which span 5 continents (Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and Australia), 17 countries (England, Italy, France, Cyprus, Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, The Philippines, USA, Nigeria, Madagascar, and Australia) and 2 British Overseas Territories (Saint Helena and Bermuda). The collection consists of 4,998 cocoons (around 15 of them are communal, with unknown number of individual cocoons inside), 195 examples of raw silk (reeled, carded, spun etc.), 11 examples of woven silk fabric, and 100 examples of so called ‘cellular seed’ (silk moth eggs laid on small pieces of fabric).

Fig. 5. Cellular seed (Bombyx mori). © The Manchester Museum

In terms of economical importance, there are four or five main types of silk, each produced by one or more silk moth species, all of which are well represented in the collection by cocoons and various forms of raw silk: mulberry (Bombyx mori), tropical tasar (Antheraea paphia, syn. A. mylitta), temperate tasar (A. pernyi, A. roylei, A. yamamai and A. polyphemus), muga (A. assamensis) and eri (Samia cynthia and S. ricini). It might be worth mentioning here that the Museum also has an extensive collection of adult silk moths, which is housed separately from the silk and cocoon collection.

Unfortunately, there are many specimens with no locality specified on the labels, nevertheless the great majority of those with known locality come from India.

Fig. 6. Wound opulence: cocoons of Antheraea yamamai (left and middle) from Japan and Cricula trifenestrata (right) from India. © The Manchester Museum

The silk and cocoon collection also includes certain ‘miscellanea’, such as examples of spider silk, artificial silk, some pupae and cocoons which most likely do not belong to Bombycoidea, and a few previously undetermined pupae of the harvester butterfly (Feniseca tarquinius).

The next steps of the project will include updating the taxonomy and records on the Museum’s database, a detailed analysis of the collection, and careful investigation regarding its previous provenance. Even though we have some potential suspects, so far combing through the pages of the Museum’s Annual Reports and Register has not produced any evidence. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that my detective skills will prove good enough to find the answers in this quest and trace down the journey of the accession F3030 into our Entomology Department’s maze.

With special thanks to Dmitri Logunov and Diana Arzuza Buelvas for their warm welcome, support and encouragement, and to the NatSCA committee for awarding me the bursary to virtually attend the SPNHC conference in Edinburgh this year

References

Kitching I., Rougerie, R., Zwick, A., Hamilton, C., St Laurent, R., Naumann, S., Ballesteros, Mejia L., and Kawahara, A. 2018. A global checklist of the Bombycoidea (Insecta: Lepidoptera). Biodiversity Data Journal 6: e22236. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.6.e22236

Logunov, D. and Merriman, N. (ed.) 2012. The Manchester Museum: Window to the World. Third Millennium Information, London

Omkar (ed.) 2017. Industrial Entomology. Springer Nature, Singapore. DOI 10.1007/978-981-10-3304-9

Peigler, R. S. 1993. Wild Silks of the World. American Entomologist 39(3): 151-161. https://doi.org/10.1093/ae/39.3.151

One thought on “Unravelling the Golden Thread: The Silk and Cocoon Collection at the Manchester Museum

  1. Pingback: NatSCA Digital Digest – June 2022 | NatSCA

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