The insect collection at Te Papa holds a hidden wealth of vibrant foreign specimens. Due to a reorganisation process, Technicians had a chance to rehouse and examine the foreign specimens. Natural History Technician Shaun Thompson talks about what he learned about our foreign insect collection.
The collection of collections
In our insect collection sits a group of old wooden cabinets. They’ve stood the test of time and have the scratches and warped colours to show it. They would not look out of place in an antique store. Yet within them, they guard an immaculate collection of insects, a collection built from the collecting efforts of numerous donors from the world over. The collections and the cabinets remain as they arrived on the day of their arrival at the museum – each cabinet holding its own little gem collection.
These cabinets house our foreign insect collection. They contain a range of diverse specimens such as butterflies from Mexico, beetles from the Amazonian rainforest, and wasps from the Pacific islands.
Many of these insects are over a century old; the earliest specimens we have were collected during the late 1800s.
A snapshot of some of the diversity in our foreign collection. Tap on an image to view.
Delicate, vulnerable specimens
While some kinds of insects are soft-bodied and are best preserved in ethanol, most will hold their shape and general condition if kept dry and looked after properly. These specimens are typically mounted on pins, along with labels that show collection information. A pin allows the specimen to be handled without touching what is still a very fragile object no matter how well-preserved it looks.
However, pinned specimens can become increasingly fragile as they age. Air movements and vibrations can damage delicate parts, possibly causing them to break or become detached. Specimens also need protection from moisture, UV light, mould, and pests. As such, it’s important to store specimens in suitable containers – typically well-sealed drawers in cabinets – that reduce these risk factors as much as possible.
Due to their age, many of the older drawers are no longer adequate for storing insects. For example, drawers may have warped or shrunk slightly over time and no longer close properly, thus putting specimens at risk.
The entomology cabinet replacement program is part of the wider Te Papa Storage Upgrade Project and presents the perfect opportunity to transfer many of the foreign insects into new drawers. These provide much safer storage conditions and will protect their fragile contents for generations to come.
This gave us the opportunity to rearrange the foreign insect collection. As mentioned before, each cabinet was holding the collection of the donor, never merged to become a logical unit. Now, we started to sort the specimens by taxonomy and country of origin, to integrate it into a more meaningful structure.
Some of the exquisite specimens to be given new homes are captured by photographer Carolina Prato.
While organizing and executing the move of the specimens, the collection information was examined. Unfortunately, the collection data labels have minimal detail. Although we can figure out where individual specimens roughly came from, it is difficult to uncover where the collection originated. The details of this have been lost to time.
However, we can make educated guesses. One of the cabinet’s collections, plainly named “E9”, seems to partly come from the Netherlands.
A few specimens from E9 were gathered by Jacob R. H. Neervoort van de Poll, a Dutch entomologist. In his lifetime, van de Poll amassed a large collection of insects from throughout the world. Although he was a beetle specialist, we curiously only have butterflies from him. It is possible that some of the unlabelled E9 specimens were also part of his collection.
After his death, Neervoort van de Poll’s collection was moved to other museums across the world, but it is unclear where they all ended up. Some specimens have been found in the British Museum and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in the Netherlands. It is not known how they arrived in Te Papa, but regardless they are an impressive addition to the collection.
Beetles, Cicadas, and more…
In another cabinet, there is a collection of beetles from Peru that were caught by Friedrich-Carl Kinsky. Born into an aristocratic family, he arrived in New Zealand in 1948 as a refugee fleeing political unrest in Czechoslovakia.
Although he was primarily an Ornithologist, he did collect a significant number of beetles in Peru from 1955 to 1956. It is not known what he was doing in Peru at this time. Although while there he collected mainly beetles, he also caught a few cicadas which ended up in a separate cabinet.
In the largest cabinet, E8, there are a couple of drawers that contain some of our foreign cicadas, including Kinsky’s 1955-6 Peruvian cicadas. Some of the other cicadas were collected relatively nearby from Australia and New Guinea, whereas some originate from as far away as Uganda and Sierra Leone.
Many of the cicadas were collected by Sir Charles Fleming, who was an environmentalist, an ornithologist, a palaeontologist and an exceptional cicada researcher. The specimens collected by Fleming are mainly from Japan and Australia but there are also a select few from as far away as Turkey.
From Australia, Fleming collected specimens of Cicadetta. This group is especially interesting as some molecular studies have found that a couple of New Zealand’s cicadas, such as Amphipsalta, are more closely related to Cicadetta than to other native cicadas.
Our foreign insects collection houses insects from many different times and places. There are specimens that have been transported all over the world and some that are older than any living person. The cabinets may have aged, but the specimens are frozen in time, still as vibrant and colourful as the day they were caught.
Although the numerous collectors who travelled far gathering these insects are long gone, their collections persist, and the storage upgrade project allows us to preserve this small snapshot of the world of insects for future generations to enjoy.