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Archive for June, 2010

The Manchester Museum’s Entomology Department welcomes a wide array of visitors, from scientists coming to study our extensive insect collections to designers and artists exploring the diversity of shapes, colours or patterns of the many thousands of creepy-crawlies deposited here. On the 17th of June, the Entomology Department was visited by Ms Eleanor Mulhearn <eleanor@eightandahalf.co.uk>, a teacher on the Design and Visual arts BA at Stockport College. Here are her first impressions following that visit.

 How can HE students learn from museum collections?

I am just beginning some research around this subject and this was my reason for a recent visit to the Entomology department, as a “test run” to learn about the process of accessing the collection through arrangement. I hope, by making visits for research, to increase my ability to work effectively with students in the museum environment linking research and creative practice, beginning in September (I teach part-time on the Design and Visual arts BA at Stockport College). Data analysis from recent student feedback I gathered identified inspiring visual research material as the most effective source of confidence leading students to make more creative work.

I began the process the students will be asked to follow. After feeling inspired by seeing magnified flower models in several of the gallery displays, this prompted interest in bees and I arranged to meet Dmitri, the Curator of Insect Collections at the Manchester Museum. We talked about parallels between the study of Entomology and art and learning from close observation resulting in reflection and ideas generation was identified as a key common skill. I was offered the opportunity to view a range of interesting specimens and have my questions about them answered. I was drawn (again by the gigantic) to some greatly magnified (20x), beautifully crafted models of insects, including an Armadillidium vulgare (woodlouse, to me, pre-visit) made by Ecofauna and used as learning material in the department. The meticulous layered card system, pinned into position under the specimen, and hardly larger, was written in the most unusually small, delicate handwriting, I learned, by Harry Britten (former curator of Entomology at the Manchester Museum, 1919-38) in a style he developed himself. This was equally inspiring in its crafting, precision and care in terms of the miniature.

Specimens of the honey-bee (left) and the model of woodlouse (right) from the Manchester Museum's collection

It would have been possible to stay all day in this welcoming department, but at this point I only had time to briefly record some specimens through photographs and sketches. The sense that I had hardly scratched the surface was positive when I noted down ideas later in the day and so this visit gave me some concrete experience about where to help students begin and continue. I was interested to note the effective drawing techniques used by the Manchester College staff (recorded on this blog) are also those we use on the Illustration BA at Stockport College.

Thank you Dmitri, I look forward to coming back. 

Some of the drawings made by Eleanor during her visit to the Museum

I am grateful to Eleanor for sharing her impressions with me (Dmitri).

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The Corsican Swallowtail (Papilio hospiton) is restricted to the islands of Sardinia (Italy) and Corsica (France) in the Mediterranean Sea, where it is extremely localized. It is found at altitudes 600-1500 m above sea level in the mountains. This species has declined dramatically through the impact of habitat destruction, commercial collecting and destruction of its foodplants (fennel) by agricultural practices. The foodplants are believed to be poisonous to sheep and are destroyed by fires started by local people. This is one of Europe’s most seriously endangered butterflies.

 The photographed specimen was collected from Sardinia in 1897, and it was donated to the Manchester Museum by Robert W. Lloyd with his collection of European butterflies in August 1958. In total, there are 22 specimens of this unique species in the Museum, collected both from Corsica and Sardinia and acquired from such famous collectors as C.H. Schill, P. Schill, D. Longsdon and R.W. Llloyd.

A specimen of the Corsican Swallowtail from the Manchester Museum's collection.

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Natural history collections, as those of the Manchester Museum, act as ‘biological libraries’ and are unique locations for information. Many museum specimens have been collected over many decades and represent time series that document changing ecological circumstances and the consequences of such changes.

 A new research project entitled as ‘Prehistoric deforestation of upland Britain – a critical test of existing models’ is aimed at revealing of the causes and evidence for deforestation in upland areas in Britain from approximately 8000-5000BP. This is an AHRC funded collaborative project led by Dr. Jeff Blackford and Dr. Pete Ryan of the School of Environment and Development, University of Manchester, and by Dr. Jim Innes of the University of Durham.

 The aim of the project is to test the rival theories for the cause of Mesolithic deforestation in the uplands (West Bilsdale Moor, Yorkshire). The prevailing theory is one of humanly induced clearance through burning, however other possible explanations include climatic change, burning by natural wildfires, degradation by wild animals and fungal diseases.

 One of the key evidence will be an analysis of beetle sub-fossil material extracted from the Bilsdale site. Beetles are known to be extremely useful in reconstructing palaeoenvironmental changes and the structure of woodland environments. They can also indicate the presence of grazing undulates where dung beetles are found and in some cases indicators of wildfire can be identified. However, any data based on beetles (and other organisms) can be reliably used, only provided that the specimens have been correctly identified to species.

 Such identification of sub-fossil beetles is not an easy task, as a researcher is to deal with broken specimens or their fragments. A most reliable way of identification is a comparison of beetle fragments with properly identified museum specimens. This mighty task is currently being undertaken by John Carson (on photo), a MSc student in the Department of Geography, University of Manchester. John uses the fine entomology collections of British beetles of the Manchester Museum (over 400,000 specimens) in order to identify the fragments of beetles collected from the Bilsdale site.

John Carson, a MSc student in the Department of Geography, University of Manchester, working with museum beetle collections.

I wish to thank John Carson for providing me with background information about the research project which he is involved in.

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The Sacred Scarab (Scarabaeus sacer) is the most famous species of scarab beetles (family Scarabaeidae), and one of many thousands species that make their living from utilizing dung. On average, about 40% of the food intake of animals is either excreted as urine or passed out of the body as faeces. This waste is decomposed and returned to the soil by insects that use dung as food for themselves and for their larvae, thereby preventing it from building up. If left unprocessed, livestock wastes may present a serious health risk to the human population, because they contain some pathogenic microorganisms.

 The Sacred Scarab is famous for making spherical dung balls, rolling them away and burying intact in shallow burrows. Occasionally, the Scarabs roll their balls from the east to the west, the same path taken by the sun. This activity of the Scarabs provided an ideal allegory for the movement of the sun across the daytime sky.

 When the ball of dung has been buried, beetles lay their eggs in it. The eggs would then be incubated by the warmth of the sun’s rays, and newly hatched larvae would feed on dung in the safe harbour provided by parent beetles. Ancient Egyptians saw in the life-cycle of the Scarab a microcosm of the daily voyage of the sun emerging from the Duat to cross the daytime sky before sinking below the horizon again at sunset. Furthermore, the Sacred Scarab was a symbol of resurrection and reincarnation in ancient Egypt, called there Khepri – the life giving force deity. See here for more details.

 The photographed specimen is just one specimen from the large Manchester Museum’s collection of scarab beetles, numbering over 3,000 species.

A specimen of the Sacred Scarab from the Manchester Museum's collection

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