The ghosts of collections past

The images stopped me in my tracks. These are the haunting signs that will make any entomologist hang their head in melancholy regret at things lost and gone forever.

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Echoes of the butterflies what were once stored in this box.

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… and the swallowtails that were once here.

These shadowy outlines were stained into the paper lining a couple of store-boxes I recently picked up at the Booth Museum of Natural History, in Brighton. They are all that is left of the butterfly specimens earnestly collected, carefully mounted and proudly pinned into the cork by some long-gone entomologist.

Imagine what would happen to the dried insect specimens, pinned into the box (the boxes stored flat to allow some stacking), if the butterfly bodies and wings suddenly and magically turned to fine dust. The dust would fall and settle on the white paper beneath, in exactly the same shape as the insect that was once above, and over the months or years the undisturbed dust would impregnate the white fibres of the lining, casting a tinge of discoloration. All that remains are the naked pins and the small rectangles of the data labels. Now the pins and labels have been removed, leaving their own echoes too.

There is no magic involved, though, just the depredations of the larvae of museum beetles — Anthrenus species. ‘Undisturbed’ is the operative word here. Undisturbed, unmonitored, unseen inside the boxes, a population of museum beetles chewed through the butterflies until there was nothing left but the beetles’ powdery dusty droppings.

Every museum in the world will have horror stories of some precious and irreplaceable collection reduced to dust like this. Store-boxes are especially prone, because they are apt to be left shut up for years or decades at a time. Glass-topped cabinet drawers, at least, can be easily pulled out and examined for the tell-tale dusty signs of an infestation — hopefully caught early on.

Like many museums, the Booth is glad to get rid of all the store boxes it can, transferring the many specimens into standard glazed drawers. And as I’m discussing this with the curators they shake their heads and bemoan the state of so many collections that come their way. This is all very significant for me, because I have just helped them transfer the nine cabinets of my father’s insect collections into the museum, along with a cabinet of snail shells and his herbarium, all of which he bequeathed to the Booth in his will. During his lifetime he was lucky that he never had any Anthrenus infestations.

The museum can heave a sigh of relief that the Alfred W. Jones bequest is pest-free, and there are no signs of any ghostly shadows on the paper linings of the drawers.

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