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Storage of entomology collections in museums

Christian Baars, 25 November 2014

What is the best way to store insect collections? Recently an enquiry was posted on NHCOLL-L (electronic forum for the care and use of natural history collections) about the use of wood as a material for insect storage cabinets. The question was:

What kind of preservative should be used to treat some new storage cabinets made of eucalyptus wood, that would not harm the insect specimens stored inside them?

The post sparked a discussion about ideal insect storage. Below is a little summary of the factors to consider when planning storage for your entomology collection.

The ideal solution

The ideal solution for insect storage in most situations are metal cabinets, which are robust, relatively cheap, made with a high degree of consistency and can be made air tight (well, almost). This will protect the collection against insect infestations, airborne pollutants and humidity fluctuations (although not temperature fluctuations – cf. Szcepanowska et al. 2013.

Why use wood preservatives?

However, if you do need to use wood for the cabinets, you should consider the following concerns.

Usually, the reasons for treating wood with preservatives are either:

  • to make it more hard-wearing (in the case of wooden floors), or
  • to stop it being attacked by fungi or insects, or
  • to prevent it from greying when exposed to UV light.

Most of these issues are problems mainly in outdoor applications of wood, and there are a number of ways of dealing with these: wood can be varnished to make it protect it from physical impacts, stained to protect it from UV light, and pressure-treated or painted with insecticides and fungicides (ranging from highly toxic substances, such as pentachlorophenol, to less hazardous ones, such as borax).

Assuming the entomology store is dry, has a low relative humidity, clean and there is no problem with insect pests – which should all be the case to safeguard the collection, never mind the storage cabinets – there is really no reason why the cabinets need a finish at all. This applies to all woods – whether in a museum or in a domestic situation, wood used indoors should not require any treatment to protect it from fungal or insect infestations, or greying. Coming back to eucalyptus wood in particular: this has a naturally high content of polyphenols, which makes it naturally resistant to mould growth and insect attack, further negating the need to treat it.

There is one exception: if old cabinets are bought from another institution there is a danger that pest insects may be present already, which could introduce them into the new location. It is advisable therefore to check any old cabinets thoroughly before they are installed – better still, before they are transported to the new location. This then gives time to investigate appropriate treatment options, which are not restricted to chemical means; instead, the units may be frozen, heat-treated or treated in a nitrogen chamber. But that is an entirely different subject which shall be discussed in detail elsewhere.

Organic acid emissions

A further question was the issue of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Wood naturally emits many different VOCs, including acetic and formic acids, which is a problem in many museum collections (e.g. causing Byne’s disease in Mollusca and egg collections, and enhancing pyrite decay in geological collections). There does not appear to be a problem with VOCs affecting insect specimens themselves, although organic acids frequently lead to pin corrosion in insect collections. Many wood preservatives may exacerbate the problem of VOC emissions from storage cabinets. As we always look for ways of lowering such airborne pollutants in museum stores and galleries there is another reason against the use of wood preservatives in entomology stores – actually, ANY museum stores.

What material to choose for the drawers? Experience has shown that plastic drawers have problems with static electricity charging, which attracts dust. Metal drawers can be heavy and unwieldy. Wooden drawers still appear to be very much the most practical way of storing insects. However, the type of wood used should not emit large amounts of VOCs, and the drawers should have well-fitting lids to keep out pests. If you wanted to use a locally sourced (sustainable and ethical) wood you might have to undertake a little research. Generally, hard woods are better than softwoods (drawers made from softwood can warp with time and often contain large amounts of resin), although many imported tropical woods used in days gone by are now controversial for environmental and social reasons. When researching the potential suitability of different wood types, try tracking down a comparative study of the VOC emissions of different local hardwoods, which would give you an indication of those high emission species to avoid in the construction of drawers.

Further guidance

The UK’s Natural Sciences Collections Association [http://www.natsca.org/] has published some guidance on the construction of insect storage units:

NHCOLL-L is a general purpose electronic forum for those with an interest in the care, management, computerization, conservation and use of natural history collections. Hosted by Yale University, NHCOLL-L is co-sponsored by the Society of the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) and the Association for Systematic Collections (ASC, Natural History Collections Alliance).

Disclaimer: The links in this article are purely examples of potential pest management but by no means an endorsement of particular companies or organisations.

Magnificent Molluscs

Katie Mortimer-Jones, 25 November 2014

Every Monday curatorial staff from the Department of Natural Sciences at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales highlight some of the fantastic mollusc specimens from our collections, on Twitter using the hashtag #MolluscMonday

The Molluscan collections at Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales number some 180,000 lots from many different collections which have been amalgamated into one systematic sequence.

The most historically important part of the collections is the Melvill-Tomlin collection which came to us in 1955 and contains over 1,000,000 specimens!

Want to find out more? Why not follow us on Twitter @CardiffCurator or @NatHistConserve or follow the hashtag #MolluscMonday to find out about this fascinating group of animals. Lots of people have been joining in so why not join in the fun!

We have compiled a collection of our favourite #MolluscMonday Tweets on Storify. We also do #BotanicMonday, #WormWedneday and #FossilFriday

Our 'Magnificent Molluscs' Storify story about #MolluscMonday

The Adventures of Arthur the Arthropleura

Annette Townsend, 11 November 2014

In June this year the Natural Sciences Department received a rather special donation from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; a life size model of a giant millipede, Arthropleura, that would have lived in the Carboniferous Period, 300 million years ago. Arthropleura is the largest invertebrate (creepy-crawly) ever known to have lived on land, reaching up to 2.6 metres in length, but despite its monstrous proportions it is thought to have been a harmless herbivore.

The model was originally on display in Kew Garden’s Evolution House but when the space was dismantled in preparation for the HLF funded restoration of the Temperate House, it was no longer needed. So it was donated to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, thanks to the generosity of Chris Mills, David Cook and Jonathan Farley at Kew.

The Arthropleura model was in need of some substantial conservation work when it arrived at AC-NMC. It had been on open display for many years in a glass house alongside living plants and was damaged and rusty. The humid display environment had caused the surface paint to flake away and several spiders and snails had taken up residence on the underside of the model!

The first job was to give the model a good wash with hot soapy water and remove the dirt and cobwebs! Then all the flaking paint was scrubbed off, the damaged areas on the legs and head were rebuilt with an epoxy putty and the surface textures recreated. The nuts and bolts of the removable antennae had rusted together, so the metal parts were replaced with new stainless steel threaded rods.

Once the repairs were complete the model was carefully painted with acrylics and then coated in a durable varnish, making it once again suitable for public display.

Some of the Natural Science staff had become rather attached to the impressive 1.5m long millipede model whilst it underwent conservation work in the lab and named it Arthur the Arthropleura! We also decided to have a bit of Halloween fun with Arthur… so he “escaped” and went on the run around the museum galleries! We posted pictures of his adventures on the @CardiffCurator Natural Sciences Twitter account and had a fantastic response from our followers. Arthur the Arthropleura is now a social media star and is a really wonderful addition to our collections!         

Arthur before conservation

Arthur has a bath

Arthur after conservation

Arthur visits the impressionists

Arthur cools down in the snow

Fire burn and cauldron bubble!

Jennifer Gallichan, 5 November 2014

‘From ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night…’

Last Friday, Natural Sciences staff celebrated Halloween in grand style with a host of truly ghoulish and grizzly specimens out in the main hall at National Museum Cardiff. The National Herbarium was transformed into a ghoul filled graveyard, and a large mosquito model leered down from the entomology (insects) stand, any moment threatening to jump on the jugular of an unsuspecting member of the public. Younger visitors to the OPAL stand were encouraged to stealthily walk through a spider’s web without disturbing its occupant, and learn about glow in the dark scorpions. Meanwhile the biggest creepy crawly that ever lived, Arthropleura, a 300 million year old extinct giant millipede, escaped from the Palaeontology (fossil) stand and went off to explore the Impressionist galleries.

Despite all of the fun, visitors gained an insight about some of the 6 million specimens that are held behind the scenes at the museum, and the incredible work of the staff that care for them.  From bats to giant squid, volcanic rocks to fungi, we covered them all. One of my favourite parts of the day was taking visitors behind the scenes on tours of the Entomology and Molluscan sections to see insects and shells and the Spirit store (not ghosts, but where we keep our specimens preserved in fluid such as sea worms and crabs). It is such a rewarding experience to see the excitement of people visiting the collections for the first time, and proudly talking about all of the great research work that we do.

If you missed it, don’t worry! We have a whole host of open days and curator led sessions coming up. See our What’s Onto find out more!

Our ghoul infested Herbarium

Learning more about the Ghost slug

Arthur the Arthropleuran

Bugs and beasties on the Entomology (Insects) stand

Younger visitors learning more about the skeleton shrimp

Hell fire and brimstone!

Eye of toad, wing of bat

Halloween Top Trumps on the Invertebrate Biodiversity stand

Museum scientists pop up at Fairwater Library

Lucy McCobb, 4 November 2014

Museum scientists were out and about during half-term week, when the I Spy…Nature pop-up museum paid a visit to Fairwater Library on 30th October.  Curators from the Botany, Invertebrate Diversity and Palaeontology sections took along specimens from their collection areas to show the public, along with a microscope and quizzes to encourage them to look even closer.

Ingrid Jüttner challenged people to identify as many trees as they could, using beautiful displays of freshly-pressed leaves and fruits.  This activity was a big hit with grown-ups, and it was very pleasing to see so many parents and grandparents encouraging children to learn more about these important plants, which bring our living spaces to life.

The library’s meeting room became temporary home to an impressive array of marine and mollusc specimens from the Invertebrate Diversity section.  People were fascinated by the creatures on display, which evoked a range of reactions (including ‘they’re really gross!’) depending on how they felt about slugs and worms!  Teresa Darbyshire showed some of the diversity of life found around our shores, with beautiful sea shells, lobster, starfish, and a pickled octopus and giant sea worm.  Visitors tried their hands at identifying shells using a key, all good training for trips to the beach!  Ben Rowson challenged people to identify mystery objects under the microscope, and introduced them to slug identification using his recently published book and life-like models.

Lucy McCobb showed visitors a range of fossils from different periods of the Earth’s history, ranging from an Ice Age mastodon tooth and horse’s leg bone, through Jurassic ammonites and ichthyosaur bones, to trilobites, which are among Wales’s oldest fossils.  The ‘what’s in a name?’ quiz was popular with children, and asked them to use the meanings of scientific names to match up the name with the correct fossil.

This was I Spy..Nature's  first venture into libraries, and showed that they have great potential as venues for taking the Museum’s collections and experts out into communities.

A beautiful display of freshly-pressed leaves and fruits

Marine specimens from the Invertebrate Biodiversity Collections

Slug identification 

A range of fossils from different periods of the Earth’s history