Four years ago I met with the designers for the new gallery spaces for the large redevelopment project for Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (rebranded as The Box, Plymouth). This was the beginning of what would become the new natural history gallery at The Box, and I was excited. It was an opportunity for this new natural history gallery to be bigger than anything we had done before with lots of specimens on display highlighting big, relevant stories for visitors.
We have over 100,000 insects in our natural history collections at The Box, and I was keen for this to be reflected in the new gallery. But I didn’t want a display of lots of things just for the sake of it. The display had to have relevance to visitors: it had to tell a story. The insects naturally led to focusing on taxonomy (how and why we classify animals and plants), biodiversity on our beautiful planet, and biodiversity loss due to climate change and habitat destruction.
Using this information, and perhaps a little over-enthusiasm on my part, the designers created a section dedicated to the insects. A lot of insects. They designed a booth, where visitors step inside and are surrounded by mini-beasts. The display is now finished, and looking glorious, with 4836 insects (including a few arachnids).
Getting from those initial meetings four years ago to displaying 4836 specimens was no easy feat. The design was drawn, but the practicalities of getting the specimens in took a lot of planning, pinning, printing, and precision. What follows is how the display came to be, with a little bit of geeky background.
The display was created with 31 panels of acrylic, with each panel having rods of different lengths that the specimens would be pinned to. The rods themselves needed to be placed into holes in the acrylic panels. This alone meant that specimens couldn’t be transferred from the insect drawers in the store room directly to the acrylic panels, because we needed to know where each hole was to be drilled into position on the panel. Getting the exact positions of the holes was essential, but it took time.
The best way to plan where the holes were to be drilled was to create exact templates of the acrylic panels, using Plasterzote (a nice inert foam museums use). Our exhibition fit out team supplied me with the exact measurements for each panel, along with numbers for each panel. The numbers showed me exactly which panel would go where in the display, so I could plan exactly where the butterflies would be, where the parasitic wasps would be, and so on.
The foam templates were cut, so I sketched of the layout of the where the different groups of insects, and I was almost ready. I just needed one more thing: a paper template of each panel. I needed to make sure our mount makers knew exactly where to drill the holes on the acrylic panels. The paper template was placed on top of the foam template, and the specimens were pinned into position.
It wasn’t as simple as putting the specimens on the template straight from the drawers. Best practice in museums is that any object or specimen taken from the store rooms has something we call a ‘removal slip’. This is generally an A7 sized carbon copy label that has the unique museum number, the location of the specimen in the collection, why it has been removed, where it is now, and the date it has been removed. This is so important for museums, so that we know where every single thing is at any one time. It’s a carbon copy so it is copied three times: one stays with the object, one goes in the store room where the specimen is normally sorted, and one goes in the curators files.
Sadly, an A7 label was pretty useless for insects. They are much too big to pin in the drawers, and would look slightly comical attached to the underside of a bee or a moth! So I had to print individual labels for each specimens. These were tiny: the labels that would go under the specimens to say which drawer the specimen had come from, was in font 4, and the label in the drawer to say where the specimen was, was in font 5. Each label had to be cut out with a scalpel, and attached to the specimen, or pinned in the drawer.
The work began. It took around 4 months, with myself working on it full time, and some late nights, my amazing work placement student, Jess, helping out as much as she could, and another entomologist called in for three weeks of support. Each foam template was carefully planned and laid out. I wanted this display to have a more dynamic feel than the usual rows of insects you see in collections, so they were angled slightly differently from each other.
When a template was finished, the specimens had to be transferred onto a new piece of foam. What was left, was the paper template with small holes in. This was the best way for the mount makers to have the easiest method of drilling the exact positions into the acrylic, so that the correct length rod in place ready. As I transferred each specimen, I used my trusty Sharpie to push down where the hole was, and then write down the code for the correct rod length (A, B, C, D, or E). The paper template was labelled with the panel number, and sent to the mount makers.
The specimens were then transferred back onto the foam template. We couldn’t just store the foam template until the specimens were transferred on to the acrylic panels, because insects are incredibly fragile, and there are lots of little pests that like to eat museum specimens. Each foam template had to be wrapped with plastic sheeting and sealed. Boxes to protect the specimens from the plastic sheets would have been expensive, so I used kabab sticks, which pierced the foam, and kept the plastic sheeting at a safe distance from the specimens. All 31 foam templates were stored safely until the acrylic panels were ready.
The acrylic panels for display had the holes drilled in them, and the rods of different lengths were pushed in the exact positions as laid out on the paper templates. They were ready. In a very specific order, Jess and I transferred the specimens from the foam templates onto the acrylic panels. Working closely with the mount maker, James, we very carefully placed and screwed into positon on large corian plinths. The plinths were very carefully moved into position in the case.
In retrospect, drilling the panels onto big plinths which then had to be moved wasn’t the best solution. A frame could have been built close to the glass, and the panels could have been attached directly, reducing any risk to the specimens. Moving the large plinths wasn’t easy, but working slowly, and very carefully, James and I positioned them without any damage to the collections.
How do we know there are exactly 4836 specimens? This is the other part of working to best practice standards. Every specimen or object in a museum has a unique number. This number tells us what it is, where it was from, when it was collected, who collected it, and sometimes even more data. This is what makes museum collections around the world such a valuable resource for researchers. All this information is held on a database for the museum, which allows quick and easy access to the data. As each specimen was placed onto the foam template, each individual number was recorded on as spreadsheet, so that the museum database can be updated with where that specimen is. Doing this means that if someone is looking for a certain species, and the specimen is on display, we know exactly where it is. As each specimen was recorded on the spreadsheet, I could count how many were on display: a whooping 4836 specimens!
This beautiful display highlights several different things. By looking at so many different insects, visitors can learn about taxonomy: how and why scientists classify life on our planet. It also shows the incredible biodiversity of life from this ‘small’ selection of insects. Every single little creature that you see on display has a unique role in the environment, and if even the littlest species disappears, that has a big knock-on effect to other plants and animals. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate due to climate change and habitat destruction. We see this with big, sexy animals like elephants or orang-utans. But hundreds of thousands of insects are at risk of extinction each year. I hope that by seeing such a huge variety of insects, visitors will see their beauty and how each individual species is so important to a healthy ecosystem.