Tag Archives: Horniman Museum

They wanted answers, I left them with questions

Every year the Horniman Museum runs various family events around the Big Butterfly Count. Sometimes I get involved. On Wednesday 27 July I took hordes of net-toting children along the nature trail, the old Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway line. Despite early rain we found six butterfly species, so I won my bet with Natural History Keeper Joanne Hatton. She still owes me.

On Thursday I was asked to talk about the difference between butterflies and moths in the museum’s hands-on base, where the young enthusiastic audience would be able to handle small glass-topped cases with real butterfly and moth specimens from the collections. My theme was ‘What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?’

Butterflies? Moths? They're all the same to me.

Butterflies? Moths? They’re all the same to me.

We looked at brightly coloured species, but these were both butterflies and moths. We looked at drab camouflaged species, but these were both moths and butterflies. We looked at small species (both again) and large species (yes, both). We looked at antennae, wing angles at rest, foodstuffs, life histories, feeding mechanisms, flight, and scales.

And before they knew it I was telling them that it didn’t really matter anyway — they’re actually all moths as far as entomologists are concerned. Butterflies, it turns out, are just a small group of pretty, obvious, day-flying moths, which humans have arbitrarily lumped together in a group and given a special name.

That told them. I’m expecting the complaints to start trickling in any time now.

I don’t work in a museum but….


best-blogI don’t work in a museum, but I’ve been nominated (i.e. challenged) to write a blog for the Twitter museumweek hashtag. I nearly didn’t get nominated, you see I don’t actually work in a museum. I quite like museums though, and my study is pretty museum-like, what with shelves of old books and cabinets of old insect specimens. I could argue that it is a sort of museum in embryo, since most museums started out as the personal cabinets of curiosity of whoever founded them. I’m not expecting my disordered boxes to lead on to anything, but I like to think I am museumish in temperament, just as I am bookish. Also, I did work at a proper museum (The Horniman) on a (very) short-term contract a few years ago. With these credentials, I managed to convince a slightly reluctant Erica McAlister from London’s Natural History Museum (see her museumweek blog here) to give me the baton. So here goes.

1. Who are you and what do you blog about? I am an entomologist, and I blog about insects. That might not seem very enlightening, but because I don’t work in a museum my claimed status as an entomologist is rather telling. (In a similar vein, when does a bird-watcher become an ornithologist.) I’m not really an ‘amateur’ since I work on insects professionally, but my lack of attachment to any academic institution also means I have no real accredited professional status. The amateur/professional dichotomy is very blurred in natural history anyway. Many key experts in the field have always been amateurs in the sense that they study insects in their own time and at their own expense; I’ve always argued that a more useful distinction is between a field entomologist (that’s me, by the way, hello) and research entomologists (they’re mostly the ones in museums and universities). I used to try and get away with being a ‘consultant’ entomologist, but that just sounded pompous so I’ve gone back to being just a plain old entomologist, and I’m comfortable with that. I go off into the field, finding invertebrates for environmental surveys. And I sometimes write something about insects too. People pay me to do this. What a lark!

2. What blog piece did you enjoy writing the most? It’s got to be Lego.  I delight in the frivolity of this. That’s one of the pluses of being self-employed.

Our giraffe-necked weevil was a triumph.

Our giraffe-necked weevil was a triumph.

 3. What made you want to start a blog? This was partly a commercial decision; it’s in lieu of a website.  I’d been writing a garden wildlife blog for Gardeners’ World for some years so my personal blog complemented that too. All my work comes in through word of mouth, so both blogs (and Twitter now) at least give me a presence on the interweb.

4. What is the best thing about working in a museum? Academic studious calm. My short-term contract at the Horniman Museum was cataloguing, curating and studying Frederick Horniman’s original collection of exotic beetles and especially specimens of the Horniman beetle, Cyprolais hornimani (Bates, 1877). Though only a few hundred specimens (mainly large showy chafers, scarabs and longhorns) the historical links to some of the major zoological players of the day was fascinating. Bates (of Amazon fame) worked on the beetles, many of which had come from Christian mission stations in Cameroon to which Horniman had personal links; William Lucas Distant (who lived just around the corner from me in East Dulwich) named several bugs and the Horniman swallowtail butterfly (Papilio hornimani) from Tanzania where Horniman had commercial tea plantations. Some of the beetle specimens were collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, others were connected to the expedition sent out to find Livingstone, or came via William Watkins, a commercial insect trader who had a showroom stall at the Crystal Palace, then newly erected up on nearby Sydenham Heath. The few small cabinets of insect specimens provide a wonderful microcosm of colonial exploration, trade and empire in the Victorian era. 

5. If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit? Without hesitation it would be the Lord Howe Island Museum. Lying in the South Pacific, between Australia and New Zealand, this remote speck of land must rank as one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and its wildlife, about which I know next to nothing I have to say, must be fascinating. Although there is no museum there, I’d also have to visit the isolated splinter of volcanic rock that is Ball’s Pyramid.

6. What is your earliest museum memory? When, as a 6-year-old, my family relocated from South Norwood (near Croydon) to Newhaven (Sussex), it did not take long for my father (from whom I get my interest in wildlife) to take me to the Booth Museum in Brighton. Although I was already firmly interested in insects I remember being transfixed by all the stuffed birds in glass cases — my first taste of a natural history museum.

7. If you could start up any new museum, which one would it be and why? I think the world needs a museum of etymology, with a large annex dedicated to punctuation, especially apostrophes.

8. Share a museum selfie?

I couldn't actually find one of those, so maybe this art gallery portrait by my daughter Lillian, might suffice.

I couldn’t actually find one of those, so maybe this art gallery portrait by my daughter Lillian, might suffice.

9. If you could own a single object or specimen from a museum’s collections, which one would it be and why? It would either be the Alfred jewel in the Ashmolean, because of the delightful happenchance of its finding, ploughed up in a Somerset field, or the handsome blue john vase that used to sit on a table in Down House which, if memory serves, was stolen some time in the 1980s.

10. What is the most popular post on your blog? It seems to be my photo-record of the 2013 Coleoptera meeting  held, as coincidence would have it, in a museum, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I think people were looking for photographs of themselves.

11. What’s the oddest comment you have received in relation to a blog post? When I blogged about dissecting a rat at a primary school natural history club, I did not realize it would be seen by the head teacher. She later took me aside for a quiet word. I thought, perhaps, that there had been complaints from the children’s parents. On the contrary, the mixture of revulsion and fascination had been reported to parents favourably. I was told to keep up the good work.

I intend to.


Technically, Museum Week (24–30 March) finished some time ago, but blogs and the hashtag continue to trail on. I’m publishing this blog now, at the very tail end, but if I can nominate someone else, I’ll tack on a post-script here.

What to do with the left-overs?

Survey left-overs — there’s no room in the reference collection for everything.

I’ve just delivered a store-box full of left-overs to the Horniman Museum. They can use them in their hands-on spaces, without fear of losing their own valuable or important specimens. They are the remnants of various surveys; they’ve served their purpose, but now they are surplus to requirements.


Every time I visit a site to record insects, I have to make an identification-potential decision for each insect I find. Since the ‘species’ is the currency of most ecological surveys, I have to make a judgement about how realistically I can correctly identify each individual to species level. I can hardly turn in a report claiming to have found “lots of pretty spiders, some hairy flies and a disgusting worm”. Although, that might make for some interesting reading and controversial management suggestions.

There are several different categories along my ease-of-identification spectrum:

  • 1) Large, obvious, distinctive species that I can readily recognize in the field with just a glance.
  • 2) Smaller, more tricky things that I need to examine closely, maybe under a hand lens, but which can then be released.
  • 3) Specimens that need to be collected. They have to be examined under a microscope, and good lighting. They may have to be compared to other specimens in a reference collection.
  • 4) Small fry that I’ve got an idea what family or genus they’re in, but which are known to be awkward, and which I’ll probably have to send off to some specialist, or sit on for years until I have enough to start making a reasonable reference collection.
  • 5) Rejects. No hopers. There’s no point in taking a specimen; it will never get identified.

Despite the thrill of finding a great silver diving beetle, or a purple hairstreak, distinctive and charismatic creatures that can easily be identified in the field, most of the category 1 and 2 insects are common and widespread, fascinating perhaps, but ultimately not very informative about any given habitat because of their ubiquity.

Likewise, at the other end of the scale, the huge numbers of teeny-tiny crawling and squirming things barely visible, all the immatures and nymphs and spiderlings, all the ‘problem’ groups (don’t mention ichneumons) are not worth the effort, I’m on a limited budget and  have limited time. In the interests of propitiousness and convenience, these have to be rejected at the first.

Not surprisingly it is the intermediates which are most useful. These are the unfamiliar, sometimes more awkward, but nevertheless workable insects (mostly small beetles, flies, bugs, bees, wasps and ants), and they can tell us more about a site than any number of bright but common butterflies. But it is these that need the most careful study and identification. They’re the ones that need to be examined under a microscope.

At the end of the season, when I finally get round to identifying things, I can work my way through most of category 3 and some of category 4. Here come the surprises — the rarities and oddities which would have been overlooked but for the presence of a specimen under the microscope.

Now, after years of moderately serious entomology, my reference collection is starting to fill up, and I just don’t have the room to incorporate much more. I still have to collect a specimen to correctly identify it, but I feel guilty about the time and effort spent catching, killing, mounting and examining it. I’m loath to throw it away. So, for now, the Horniman Museum gets them and they pass from scientific study to educational. Natural recycling, I call it.