Caring for our collections: Conserving and decanting our butterflies and bugs.

1 June 2023

Taking up hundreds of drawers, the Museum’s exceptional collection of insects includes more than 250,000 specimens from across Suffolk, as well as Britain and worldwide. Created patiently by prominent naturalists and entomologists such as William Kirby and Claude Morley (who was also a poet), the collection offers invaluable insight into how Suffolk’s entomological fauna has changed over 150 years. Astonishingly beautiful butterflies (Lepidoptera) and beetles (Coleoptera) are particularly well represented. How are they doing now? Well, about a third of our insect collection has been moving house, let’s have a look at how this has been going…

Ipswich Museum Conservation Officer Bob Entwistle explains:

“For the museum’s redevelopment we have been emptying the building and removing all objects from the displays and stores within the museum’s building. These are being re-sited in new temporary stores. Whilst emptying the insect store, we were given a chance to conserve and make ready some of the insect collection for moving. We had to stabilise, clean and repair the insects.

Firstly, the collection was frozen (in temperature as low as -35°C) to ensure it was free of unwanted insects and pests. Some insects we want, but not the ones that eat the collection.

Then we removed all the insects on their pins and hoovered and cleaned the drawers of all dirt and insect frass (that’s a posh name for insect poo). We removed all the old acidic mounting paper which we replaced with new and clean acid free mounting paper.

Over time due to age, vibration and general fragility, the insects lose bits. Loose legs, heads and wings were all carefully removed and kept. If possible, we matched up the bits and wings to the beetles and butterflies in the drawers and tried very carefully to re-attach them.

The butterflies were turned carefully upside down and rested on foam and silicon release paper placed beneath the wings or where the wings should be. The wings were then slid carefully into place and covered with very small pieces of thin tissue paper. A consolidant (very dilute adhesive), was carefully introduced on the end of a fine brush or pipetted onto the tissue which adhered to the wing and the body or thorax. We let the consolidant dry and then carefully removed the release paper. The butterfly had its wings back and could be re-pinned into the clean drawer.

Feet, heads and body bits were a bit trickier. If the parts were big enough, we could carefully reattach the legs under a microscope with some thin tweezers and some globby adhesive.

If the parts are too small to attach, they were placed in little transparent capsules and pinned beside the insect to which they belonged.

Some of the bugs were very small, whilst others were terrifyingly large. We take good care of them all!”

The practicalities of the conservation process are sometimes far from beautiful, but that’s a conservator’s role – the work needs to be done, however unpleasant to look at, to preserve the collection and keep it in good condition for future generations.

All the butterflies, beetles and other bugs from the museum’s building are clean and refreshed after the conservation ‘spa’ treatment and have moved to their new home in temporary storage. Some may find their way into new displays being created as part of the museum’s redevelopment, while others remain in their storage cabinets for study by current and future generations of entomologists, ecologists, and other researchers.

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