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

Many Hands Make Light Work

Written by Milo Phillips, Assistant Curator of Entomology at Leeds Museums and Galleries.

The past couple of years have seen a significant shift toward digital alternatives throughout the museum sector, from online exhibitions to webinars and remote conferencing, with our collections and their stories reaching a potentially global audience, more so than ever before. While much is being done to boost engagement with collections in new and exciting ways, museums on the whole have yet to harness the power of this shift when it comes to collections management.

The value of our natural science collections lies in their accessibility, in how open they are to this growing audience, from our local schools to researchers around the world and everyone in-between.

As our collections grow and our technology improves, digitization has become an important part of maintaining natural history collections. Using a citizen science approach, and bringing museum audiences on-board, we can turn collection management into a way of improving our collections, while simultaneously facilitating a deeper and more meaningful level of engagement with our objects and their stories.

Zooniverse is a free online platform built to facilitate a crowdsourced approach to large data sets and, while traditionally used by academic research groups, is an ideal solution to tackling tasks with much more efficiency than lone curators or even dedicated teams might be able to achieve. Projects can either be restricted to a specific group of users or opened up to the public for anyone to contribute their time to.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – September

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

Welcome to the September 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 museum re-openings, exhibition launches, virtual conferences and 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.

What to do

As we move into the new school year, The Grantham Climate Art Prize is calling for messages of hope from young people on climate change – ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this November. This is an opportunity for young people aged 12-25 to raise awareness for our precious habitats and send a message of hope through designing a mural to go onto walls across the UK – and be in for a chance to win £250 cash!  The theme of this competition is Biodiversity Loss and Climate Change. Click here to learn more – entries by 24.09.21.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – March

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

It’s that time again when we look at some great events and conferences, writing, and jobs, chosen just for you!

What Should I Read?

Dodo’s in Leeds. Not alive, obviously, but still extremely fascinating. A lovely post by Clare Brown at Leeds Museums and Galleries. Harry Higginson: Distributing dodos in the 1860s.

Plants. Pressed. Old. Difficult to look after. Here’s a nice post by Imogen Crarey: Five lessons for life from working on the Horniman’s Historical Herbarium.

How do you print a dinosaur to make it look lifelike and realistic? Let Alex Peaker tell you: Printing a dinosaur.

Want to discover some incredible women in science? Of course you do! Scroll through excellent, engaging and accessible blog posts all about female archaeologists and palaeontologists on the TrowelBlazers website.

What Should I Do?

Perhaps the biggest event of the year, the annual NatSCA conference, is now taking bookings!

Dead Interesting: Secrets of Collections Success
Wednesday 1st – Friday 3rd May 2019
National Museum of Ireland, Dublin – Collins Barracks site
The #NatSCA2019 conference aims to unlock the secrets of collections success by sharing how our members and colleagues in the wider sector have used collections to benefit their organisations, communities and the wider world.
We will host three themed sessions, with a focus on:
Collections: Reveal your collections care, research and access secrets.
Engagement: What are your engagement success stories and how did you make them happen?
Museums and Tech: How has technology helped you unlock, understand and unleash your collections?

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Wild About Portsmouth – Discovering Portsmouth’s Natural History Collection

Written by Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums

In March 2018 Portsmouth City Council was awarded a £79,700 grant to deliver a ‘Wild about Portsmouth project in order to raise the profile of the city’s Natural History collection. In addition to appointing a curator and an assistant, the project enables the development of natural history advocates and a team of volunteers to work on and promote the collection. The project also aims to engage with people in a variety of ways, from family activities to specialist workshops, with the view of participants helping to inform priorities for collection development and new displays.

As a curator with over 20 years’ experience in Hampshire, I have always been aware of the collection but had very little knowledge of it. The last Natural History Curator was 10 years ago and, apart from the occasional request, little had been done to develop the collection. An initial overview showed that the collection was (mainly) in good condition, packed into archival and museum quality boxes awaiting rediscovery.

One of the first tasks was to get an idea of the scope of the collections and their associated collectors. Another task was to recruit volunteers to assist with rearranging the collections to get them into taxonomic order and to catalogue them or update the Modes database with provenance data. To date 10 volunteers have been recruited and are currently working on the geology, shell and botany collections. Once the entomology collections have rehoused over the next few months (the cabinets are currently stored side-on making access to them rather difficult), volunteers will be recruited to re-stage, re-organise and catalogue them.

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