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

NatSCA Digital Digest – May 2022

Compiled by Claire Dean, Curatorial Assistant at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, and MA Preventive Conservation student at Northumbria University.

Welcome to the May edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Sector News

The countdown is on to the SPNCH/NatSCA/BHL Conference 2022, which is being held in Edinburgh and online. Early Rate registration has now closed but a Late Rate registration fee is still available, with NatSCA members eligible for the Standard Member rate. The programme runs from Sunday 5th to Friday 10th June and is available to view here.

If your work involves (or if you are considering) citizen science, community science, or other forms of research collaborations with the public, you may be interested in joining the virtual C*Sci2022 conference, May 23-26th.  Registration is now open and the full programme is available here.

Brighton’s Booth Museum has received funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund for an exciting new project to create a modern diorama to reflect changes in UK wildlife since E.T. Booth’s death in 1890. The project will also involve improving their educational offers and increase audience participation. Due to run from 2022-2024, you can find out more about the project here.

The Cole Museum of Zoology has now reopened after their relocation to a new Health and Life Sciences building! See their Visit Us pages for the latest information.

Abstract submissions are open for Collections focus issue: Natural history collections come in from the cold (Arctic Collections in World Museums). Guest Editors: Consuelo Sendino & Svetlana Nikolaeva, Natural History Museum, London, are looking for articles and case studies of 15-25 pages, reviews and technical columns on Arctic natural history collections, fossil or recent, of any phylum, and geological samples kept in museums, universities, geological surveys, or other institutions. They’re aiming to show diversity and importance of these collections, to facilitate the accessibility of these specimens to researchers, and to provide guidance for policy makers to create new measures to protect and manage the Arctic seas, their biodiversity, and geodiversity. Authors should express their interest by submitting a 150-word abstract to the journal editor or guest editors by June 1, 2022. The deadline for the submission of final papers is August 1, 2022. Publication is anticipated for volume 19 with an issue date of 2023. For more information contact the journal editor, Juilee Decker, jdgsh@rit.edu, or the guest editors, Consuelo Sendino at c.sendinolara@nhm.ac.uk and Svetlana Nikolaeva at s.nikolaeva@nhm.ac.uk.

7th-15h May is GeoWeek! The aim is to promote ‘active geoscience’ via a nine-day ‘week’ of fieldwork activities. There’s a map of events taking place right across the UK here. Up here in Cumbria, Tullie House and a wide range of other museums and societies are putting on exciting geology activities for all. More info on this county-wide programme is available here.

Where to Visit

Butterflies Through Time: Using wildlife of the past to guide conservation of the future is on at University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge until 18th September 2022. This exhibition uses UK butterfly specimens to showcase the natural world and environmental change. It highlights the research that conservationists today are undertaking to reverse long-term declines, including people based in the Museum. An accompanying online resource details the population changes of all of Cambridgeshire’s butterfly species over the last 200 years. This work is supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, run by the Museums Association. 

A Northumberland Menagerie involves new animal-themed exhibitions across four museums. You can discover stories of Northumberland’s animals – past and present, real, and imagined – through artist Bethan Maddock’s magical, paper-cut installations until Sunday 30th October 2022.

The Wellcome Collection’s Rooted Beings invites you to embark on a meditative reflection on the world of plants and fungi. The exhibition considers what we might learn from plant behaviour, and the impacts of colonial expeditions on the exploitation of natural resources and indigenous knowledges. While at the Barbican’s Our Time on Earth you can imagine sitting down to eat next to diners from other species, commuting through a rewilded city, over a bridge made of roots, and immerse yourself in the magnificent underground world of soil. Both are on until 29th August 2022.

Online Events

NatSCA’s monthly chats are held at 12:30pm GMT on the last Thursday of every month, the next being the 26th May 2022, are supposed to be informal, no fancy equipment is needed, it will be put out over the NatSCA Zoom platform and there is no fixed format. There will be shaky walks through stores by mobile, demos, plain pieces to camera or traditional PowerPoints if that’s the best way to share images and info.

The next talk will be from Hannah Clarke, talking about the work she’s doing on the Marvellous Molluscs project using Bill Pettit Memorial Award funds. Bring your sandwiches and a cuppa and we hope to see you on the day! All members will have received a link to join via Zoom – if you haven’t get in touch with membership@natsca.org.

You can find out more from the researchers featured in the Butterflies Through Time exhibition in a series of online talks. These are taking place every Wednesday at 7pm on Zoom for six weeks and will be made available afterwards online.

The next Habitat talk from the London Natural History Society on May 19th could be helpful if you want to brush up on your wetland species.

In online lecture, How to Love Animals, on 25th May, journalist Henry Mance will be asking why when so many of us consider ourselves animal-lovers, is our society bad at making life better for animals?

What To Read

Volume 10 of the Journal of Natural Science Collections landed in members’ inboxes in early April, have you had a chance to read it yet? Dig in for fascinating papers on decolonising collections, collections research, conservation, displays, and using collections.

The NatSCA blog also has an inspiring new post from Assistant Curator Hannah Clarke on the Marvellous Molluscs project at The University of Aberdeen’s Zoology Museum.

Curious about how to maximise your chances of becoming a fossil? Find out more in this intriguing BBC Future article.

Have you ever encountered a walking yew? This Guardian article is a great taster for Tony Hall’s new book from Kew Publishing – Great Trees of Britain and Ireland.

Where To Work

The Sedgwick Museum is looking for a Collections Assistant with some experience of collections management and/or collections migration to play a key role in the development of the Museum’s new Collections Research Centre. This post is fixed term for one year and the deadline is 14th May.

The Natural History Museum has a number of roles available, including a National Programmes Co-ordinator vacancy that has a deadline of 16th May.

Make sure you keep up-to-date with vacancies between bulletins by checking the NatSCA jobs page: https://www.natsca.org/jobs

Before You Go…

If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org. Similarly, if you have something to say about a current topic, or perhaps you want to tell us what you’ve been working on, we welcome new blog articles so please drop Jen an email if you have anything you would like to submit.

Digital Digest – April 2022

Compiled by Milo Phillips, Assistant Curator of Entomology for Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Welcome to the April edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Sector News

SPNHC / BHL / NatSCA Conference 2022

This summer will see the return of the physical NatSCA Conference – a partnership with the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections and the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Early Rate registration has now closed but a Late Rate registration fee is still available, with NatSCA members eligible for the Standard Member rate. The programme of events is now available to view.

NatSCA Lunchtime Chats

The new lunchtime chats are for members only and run on the last Thursday of every month. In our last session we heard from Mike Rutherford, Curator of Zoology and Anatomy at the Hunterian in Glasgow all about their investigation of a sperm whale that washed up in Thailand.

In this month’s talk we’ll be having a discussion about upcoming openings on the board of trustees for NatSCA (i.e. the committee), so please join us if you’d like to learn more about what we all do. There will be specific roles opening up so departing trustees will be explaining in more detail what those involve, but there will also be general positions available. Any NatSCA member is eligible to become a trustee; no previous experience or length of time as a member is a requirement, just an enthusiasm for supporting the work of the association. We welcome and encourage all applicants and we are particularly keen to receive nominations that help us represent the diversity of our membership, at trustee level.

This series is supposed to be informal, no fancy equipment is needed, it will be put out over the NatSCA Zoom platform and there is no fixed format. There will be shaky walks through stores by mobile, demos, plain pieces to camera or traditional PowerPoints if that’s the best way to share images and info. For those who want to take part please email training@natsca.org to put forward your idea; if a stable internet connection for what you want to achieve is tricky we can put up a pre-recorded video and then speakers can jump in at the end for the discussion.

Bring your sandwiches and a cuppa and we hope to see you on the day! All members will have received a link to join via Zoom (the same link works for all sessions) – if you haven’t, get in touch with membership@natsca.org.

Upcoming NFBR conference

The National Forum for Biological Recording has an upcoming conference for members to attend: ‘Curating the Past, Creating the Future: Legacies in Biological Recording’. It will take place Thursday 5th May – Saturday 7th May 2022 at Oxford University Museum of Natural History as well as online via Zoom. The conference costs £20 in person or £10 online. You can book your space here.

The theme this year is the legacies created by biological recording. From safeguarding historic specimen collections to dealing with personal photographs, they aim to cover various aspects of usefully preserving biological recording outputs for present and future generations. On Saturday 7th May there is a field trip to Wytham Woods, a species rich site which has been maintained and researched by Oxford University for 80 years. Find out more about the conference here, including the event programme.

Where to Visit

The National Museum of Scotland currently has a fascinating exhibition showcasing a bound copy of Audubon’s Birds of America and several original, unbound prints from the National Museums of Scotland’s Library collection. This is a great chance to learn about the making of the rarest and most renowned natural science books and the exhibition considers both Audubon’s complex and problematic story, as well as the conservation lessons we can learn from his unprecedented publication. The exhibition will run until May 8th this year, and tickets can be booked here.

There’s also still time to visit Titus: T. rex is King at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham. This exhibition hosts the first, real Tyrannosaurus rex to be displayed in England for over a century. Tickets and more information can be found here and the exhibit is set to run until the end of August this year.

What to Read

Cambridge University Library saw two notebooks, originally belonging to Charles Darwin, anonymously returned after more than 20 years after they were first reported missing. Read more about the work of Dr Jessica Gardner and Dr Katrina Dean and their work to recover and verify the notebooks here.

We have another wonderful NatSCA blog all about developing remote volunteering roles and promoting opportunities during and post-Covid, written by John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool. ‘Wikipedia, Museum Volunteers And The New Normal‘ is available to read here now.

If you prefer reading with your ears, there is an upcoming online talk from Sam Turvey, conservation biologist for the Institute of Zoology in London, all about how the historical animal collections at Bristol Museum are helping conservation efforts for critically endangered species. The talk is at 12pm on Thursday 21st April,. Registration is free and can be found here.

Where to Work

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are looking for a Specimen Preparer (full time, permanent, £22,097). Closing date is Friday, 29th April at midnight. [https://careers.kew.org/vacancy/specimen-preparer-482106.html]

If you’re feeling brave and don’t mind the cold, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust is recruiting a new seasonal team for their Port Lockroy base. Duties include caring for the historical collection at the museum, running the post office, and counting lots of Gentoo penguins. More info on the various roles can be found here.

Before You Go…

If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org. Similarly, if you have something to say about a current topic, or perhaps you want to tell us what you’ve been working on, we welcome new blog articles so please drop Jen an email if you have anything you would like to submit.

NatSCA Digital Digest – March 2022

Compiled by Olivia Beavers, Assistant Curator of Natural Science at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

Welcome to the March edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. We are really keen to hear more about what you are getting up to, exhibition launches, virtual conferences, training, webinars, and new and interesting online content. If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Sector News

SPNHC / BHL / NatSCA Conference 2022

This summer will see the return of the physical NatSCA Conference – a partnership with the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections and the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Early Rate registration is now open until April 8th (after which the Late Rate fee will apply), with NatSCA members eligible for the Standard Member rate.

The programme of events is now available to view.

NatSCA Lunchtime Chats

The new lunchtime chats are for members only and run on the last Thursday of every month. Paolo Viscardi’s talk: Decanting the Dead Zoo, gave us an amazing and informative insight into how the team at the National Museum of Ireland Natural History moved thousands of specimens (from whales and Giant Deer to fragile Blaschka models) to enable work for the conservation of their roof to begin. The next talk: ‘Investigation of a Sperm Whale that washed up in Trinidad’, will be hosted by Mike Rutherford, Curator of Zoology and Anatomy at The Hunterian in Glasgow on Thursday March 31st 2022, 12:30-13:30.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – February 2022

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

Welcome to the February edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. We are really keen to hear more about what you are getting up to, exhibition launches, virtual conferences, training opportunities, webinars, and new and interesting online content. If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Sector News

SPNHC / BHL / NatSCA Conference 2022

Next summer will see the return of the physical NatSCA Conference – a partnership with the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections and the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Early Rate registration is now open until April 8th (after which the Late Rate fee will apply), with NatSCA members eligible for the Standard Member rate.

Continue reading