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. © Piotr Korpak

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). © Piotr Korpak

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.). © Piotr Korpak

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. © Piotr Korpak

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). © Piotr Korpak

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. © Piotr Korpak

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 F3032 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

Vertebrate Collections of the Institute of Biology, UNAM, Move to the New Building of the National Biodiversity Pavilion in Mexico City.

Written by Fernando A. Cervantes, Professor and Curator of Mammals, Department of Zoology, Instituto de Biología, UNAM.

Mexico is a megadiverse country and has 10% of the world’s species. The Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (IBUNAM) houses the National Biological Collections (NBC), which contain the largest and most important representation of museum specimens of Mexican biodiversity in Mexico. These include 10 zoological collections, a herbarium, and a botanical garden (Zambrano and Reynoso, 2003). Among the highlights are the National Insect Collection (CNIN), with more than 3,000,000 specimens, the National Herbarium (MEXU), with more than 1,500,000 specimens, and the living collections of the Botanical Garden. They all collaborate in the elaboration of the national biological inventory and their specimens provide knowledge on the presence, distribution, and evolution of biological diversity (Cervantes et al. 2016).

   The NBC are located at the IBUNAM facilities in the Ciudad Universitaria campus, south of Mexico City, Mexico, where they have been for approximately 22 years now. However, the rapid growth in the number of specimens in each of the collections over the last few decades has meant that the space in which they are currently housed is no longer sufficient. At the same time, the number of academic personnel associated with the NBC, students, equipment, and materials have grown in parallel and demand the need for more space to allow for the proper functioning of the NBC.

In spite of these problems and in contrast to the worldwide trend to reduce support for biological collections (Yong 2016), Mexico continues to support the existence and work of biological collections in favour of biodiversity knowledge and conservation (Cervantes, 2016). For this reason, a new building has just been constructed to provide both additional spaces to properly house the NBC specimens and space for the growth of the NBC for years to come: the National Biodiversity Pavilion.

Figure 1. View of the National Biodiversity Pavilion, the new building of the Institute of Biology, National Autonomous University of Mexico, which will house not only the national biological collections of fish, amphibians and reptiles, birds and mammals but also a museum that will exhibit specimens of Mexican biodiversity from these collections (Photo by Victor H. Reynoso).

From the IBUNAM biological collections, this new space will house only the vertebrate collections (fish, amphibians and reptiles, birds, and mammals), the molecular biology and genomic sequencing laboratory, and the wood section of MEXU. On the other hand, the invertebrate collections (mites, arachnids, crustaceans, helminths, insects, and mollusks) will also benefit as they will occupy the space left by the vertebrate collections, which will allow for a significant expansion. At this moment, the National Reptile and Amphibian Collection has already finished moving to the new facilities of the Pavilion. Undoubtedly. The expansion of the facilities of IBUNAM’s national collections will allow them to work efficiently and continue contributing to the institutional objectives of supporting scientific research, teaching, and dissemination of culture.

In addition, this new building will also house a space destined to function as a museum where Mexican specimens of biodiversity from all the NBC will be exhibited (Fig. 2). The Pavilion has three floors, and 12 exhibition halls, including a digital library for all types of museum users, particularly students. The goal is to inspire children and young people to pursue degree programs related to biodiversity conservation and biology and showcase the country’s diversity. A unique space in Latin America, the Biodiversity Pavilion serves a dual role as both museum and research center in a 12,000-square-meter (129,000-square-foot) space. The coexistence and joint work of the NBC and the museum will allow for a wide range of flora, fauna, and mycobiota.

Fig. 2. Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) skeleton on display in the lobby of the National Biodiversity Pavilion of the Institute of Biology, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City (Photo by Yolanda Hortelano).

The Pavilion was built as a donation from the Slim Foundation of Mexico to IBUNAM with the purpose of strengthening the knowledge and conservation of Mexican biodiversity as well as promoting environmental education for the general public. The following show short videos in Spanish of the National Biodiversity Pavilion:

References

Cervantes, F. A. J. Vargas-Cuenca, and Y. Hortelano-Moncada. 2016. An overview of the Mammal Collection of Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Journal of Natural Science Collections 4:4-11.

Cervantes, F. A. 2016. Uso y mantenimiento de colecciones biológicas, IB, UNAM. Revista Digital Universitaria 17(12):1-12.

Yong, E. 2016. Funding Freeze Hits Natural History Museum Collections. The Atlantic, March 25

Zambrano, L, and V. H. Reynoso. 2003. National Collections of Mexico. Copeia, 4: 923-926.

‘Marvellous Molluscs’ – Increasing Accessibility, Improving Storage & Unlocking Research Potential At The University Of Aberdeen

Written by Hannah Clarke, Assistant Curator (Collections Access), University of Aberdeen.

In April 2021, The University of Aberdeen’s Zoology Museum, with support from NatSCA’s Bill Pettit Memorial Award, undertook a year-long project to rehouse and improve the accessibility of the University’s mollusc collection.

The collection comprises approximately 2550, mostly British specimens, collected from the 1840s to the 1970s. The specimens were gifted to the museum by former students, academic staff, and amateur shell collectors, they also include several specimens from as far afield as the Pacific, Africa, China, Madagascar, America, and Canada.

The molluscs form part of the University’s extensive Zoology Collections, which are recognised as being of National Significance. As such, we are constantly striving to improve access to these collections, and the ‘Marvellous Molluscs’ Project aimed to do just that.

Assistant Curator, Hannah Clarke, identifying storage issues in specimen cupboards.

Having identified the collections both in storage and on display, a project plan was created that would tackle not only the rehousing, but also the documentation of the specimens on the museum database. The majority of specimens were poorly stored several layers deep in drawers, had outdated taxonomy, and lacked any database records or collections data.

In order to address the storage issues, we sourced several sizes of crystal boxes, which would protect the shells from further damage and stack neatly, should we need to maximise the storage space we had. This also meant that the specimen labels wouldn’t be separated from the specimens, could be kept inside the box, and the exterior of the boxes could be clearly labelled, making them easier to locate in the future.

Old storage methods inside the specimen drawers. Specimens inside poly bags, labels becoming detached, specimens stored in layers causing damage as the drawers are opened. This system also made specimens hard to locate.

Without a specialist in-house curator, we were very fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of staff members from the School of Biological Sciences at the University, who offered their time to help identify the trickier specimens and lent their support to the project as it progressed. A special mention must go to Dr Kara Layton, Lecturer in Marine Biology, and Eilidh Player, Laboratory Demonstrator, as well as several Post-Graduate Museum Studies Students, who offered their knowledge and enthusiasm to the cause. It certainly has been a steep learning curve for me, and I can’t thank them enough for their willingness to share and exchange their extensive knowledge!

In the first few months, we began to update the scientific names of the specimens, transcribe old labels and data into the database and identify specimens without labels or accession numbers.

In the meantime, our crystal box supplier unexpectedly ceased manufacturing, and cancelled our previously agreed order…

Luckily some of our specimens had original glass-lidded boxes, so we focused on re-using these where we could. Eventually, almost halfway through the project, the boxes arrived, and we were able to speed up the rehousing of those specimens which we already catalogued.

The Crystal boxes finally arrived… what a relief!

We faced a few further challenges along the way, the Covid Pandemic being the main one! This meant that we had limited access to the museum stores on campus, and a shortage of lorry drivers meant that delivery times for project materials were extended too.

We did however make some wonderful discoveries along the way, including a specimen of the rare ‘Crusty Nautilus’ Allonautilus scrobiculatus, found in a drawer labelled ‘miscellaneous’ (as is almost always the case when you re-discover something amazing)! It is now on display with several other interesting mollusc specimens in ‘The Gallery’ of the Sir Duncan Rice Library until June this year.

The Crusty Nautilus specimen, found in a drawer labelled ‘miscellaneous’.

We are now nearing the end of the project and have managed so far to rehouse and update over 600 database records.

Rehousing in appropriately sized boxes has created more space in the storage cabinets, and the labelling of the specimens with their current scientific names has made searching for the molluscs much easier both on the museum database and in the drawers themselves.

Newly rehoused molluscs in individual specimen boxes, with clear labelling.

As the project has evolved, it has become increasingly clear that the scale of the task at hand is much larger than we initially anticipated.

Although most specimens are labelled with original accession numbers which correspond to hard-copy registers, over 70% of the collection does not have a database record.

Therefore, the rehousing and cataloguing work will need to continue after the initial Project deadline of April 2022. Luckily, we have several keen university students willing to volunteer on the project, and as they say, ‘many hands make light work!’

The wonderful discoveries that have already been made, have further validated just how important this project is for widening access to future research of this rich and diverse collection. We can’t wait to see what we might uncover next!

New Mollusc Display in ‘The Gallery’ at the Sir Duncan Rice Library.

Giving Collections An Extra Life – Making Video Games That Promote Collections Engagement (For Free)

Written by Glenn Roadley, NatSCA Committee Member, Curator of Natural Science at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

(Note: this article includes interactive games. If they don’t work, your organisation may have blocked game websites through your network)

You might think that playing video games falls at the opposite end of the hobby-spectrum when compared to getting engaged with nature. But the immersion and creativity allowed often provides many of the same benefits, and nature is used as inspiration for many of the most popular video games. In this way video games can become a gateway to learning about nature in the real world – did you know that the highest grossing media franchise of all time (step aside, Marvel) started as a video game about collecting fictional animals to help a scientist with their biological recording project? You’ve probably heard of it. And the Animal Crossing franchise, a game series where a core activity involves collecting insects and fish to donate to the local museum, has sold over 70 million copies.

Games like Pokémon and Animal Crossing show that natural science collections are already on to a winner when it comes to subject matter and gaming. The collections are full of characters and stories, and games should be considered as another way to provide access to these.

The benefits of games are well-established (stress relief, improvement of memory and development of problem-solving skills are among the benefits often cited) and Learning Through Play is already a central part of how museums engage with their audiences. Many museums have used computer games to bring their interpretation to life (https://www.museumnext.com/article/how-can-games-in-museums-enhance-visitor-experience/).

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The First Steps Of An Epic Move

Written by Clare Valentine, Head of Life Science collections, Natural History Museum, London.

Securing £182m to build a new science and digitisation centre in March 2020 was an incredible moment for the Natural History Museum, and the culmination of many years of hard work across the organisation to make the case for better facilities for the collections and research. The support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport provides an opportunity to secure the future of the collections by moving them into bespoke, accessible storage, to accelerate digitisation of the collections to expand access for researchers globally and transform the study of natural history through an investment in new analytical facilities, technologies and techniques.

Receiving confirmation of the funding just a matter of days before the UK shutdown for the best part of 2 years didn’t come without its challenges, but it’s been incredible to see the progress that has been made towards our immense plan to build the centre and move tens of millions of specimens there by 2027.

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