The collection conundrum: How useful are Museum collections?

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Hope the whale suspended over Hintze hall

Visiting a museum for the first time can be a magical experience. Wandering through the vast halls, awing at the exhibits and looking at all the various artefacts within the museum walls can inspire wonder and intrigue into pretty much anyone.For me, the Natural History Museum is one of the greatest museums I have ever visited; with its breath-taking architecture, plethora of exhibitions and host of scientific specimens within the main halls and the Darwin centre cocoon. However, just walking around and taking in all of this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the treasures held within.

The NHM (like most museums) isn’t just a place to visit, but also a cornucopia of scientific research and constant study which the museum wants to share with as many people as possible. They do this by hosting talks in the Darwin centre, ‘Lates’ evenings – where you can go to talk with curators and participate in backstage tours of the collection areas – and even through sleepovers at the museum. On some occasions, however, the museum will have stalls erected during visiting hours to engage the public about the collections.

I have been fortunate enough to help talk to the public about the Entomological collections held within the museum, the most prevalent questions being – “How many insects do you have?”, “Where do you keep them all?” and even, “How do you keep that many insects alive?”. Most people respond to the answers by enthusing about how amazing it is that so much has been collected and how the museum can manage to keep it in such good condition. However, there are equally many people condemning this fact; believing that it is cruel to have pinned so many specimens instead of simply recording their whereabouts. This got me thinking; why is there an aversion – in some people – to Museum collections? Do we really need hundreds of a single species pinned in boxes? And do they all just sit there gathering dust?

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A collection box from the NHM containing moths collected in South Africa

In short, the answer is as follows; these questions arise from a lack of understanding on museum collections and the data they hold which can be used for scientific study, particularly that of entomology. The collection data held within museums is invaluable and help progress our understanding of a variety of topics surrounding the specimens. Entomology benefits heavily from the use of museum data in studies, many published papers use the date, life stage (adult, pupa, larva) and site in which a specimen was collected in order to discuss how Lepidoptera may have been affected by climate change. One paper even looks at how the phenology (life cycle) of British butterflies has changed since the 19th century. It talks of how the rates of phenological change in butterflies (as a response to changes in host plant flowering periods) is slowing down and should these changes continue, it could cause greater problems for many species.

Furthermore, some papers even use genetic data extracted from museum specimens in order to help determine how some species of insect have evolved, and look at the changes in biodiversity within a given habitat. One such paper used tissue samples from both dry and ethanol preserved specimens of sack-bearer moth (Mimallonidae) to construct a phylogeny for the moth family. The results of that study will greatly contribute to further studies concerning the biogeography, evolution and host plant relations of Mimallonids.

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The caterpillar of a Mimallonid moth which will later go on to build a “sack” of silk (from which it’s common name is derived).

Recently, the Natural History Museum has embarked on a large scale digitisation of their collections, starting with the Lepidoptera in a project called iCollections. The digitisation of the collections held within the museum are available to the public through the NHM data portal. This provides a wealth of data on the digitised specimens (including year, location, species, holotypes, paratypes etc.) which lends itself to further use of their data in many studies concerning conservation, biogeography, taxonomy and genetics. The large sample sizes of the collections and range of locality and year of collection add to this possibility of further study, helping to increase our overall understanding of the many insect species held within museums.

Overall, Museums are fantastic places filled with the potential of further study, and those like the NHM have an unending potential to help develop our understanding of insects through time. On the 6th February the Harper Entomology students will be visiting the NHM where we hope to learn even more about the wondrous Entomological collections held within their walls.

 

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