Guest post: What an experience! A working week at the Museum | Curator of Lepidoptera

One of the most important aspects of being a curator is not actually related to the Museum’s collections, but instead it’s ensuring that we encourage others to become interested in the natural world and the role we perform. So, this August gone, I was very lucky to have help from Billy Stockwell, a young wildlife enthusiast, who spent a few days at the Museum for work experience. Here’s his own tale of his time here, which he has kindly given me permission to reblog and I encourage you to read the rest of Billy’s adventures in the world of nature on his own blog:

The Natural History Museum is far more than just a museum. With 80 million specimens straddling 4 billion years of natural history it’s more of a microcosm of mother nature herself; a snippet from each stage of our planet’s life hitherto. Its collections are no less over-whelming, including prehistoric creatures worthy enough to feature in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, to millions of butterfly specimens whose species inhabit our modern world today.

Photo showing hawkmoths in a drawer
Hawkmoths in the Museum’s collection

From a visitor’s perspective the most exciting aspects of the Museum may be the captivating dinosaur exhibition, the butterfly house, or even the Museum’s gift shop. But if you’re brave enough to venture behind the scenes you have another thing coming! And that’s exactly what I decided to do for my work experience a few weeks ago…

Having received the good news a few days previously I packed my bags ready for a week in London! I was staying with my grandparents just out of the centre, having to take an hours commute to the Museum every day, but it was worth it! Not only did the work experience prepare me for later life, the travelling did too by helping me organise myself, develop independence and confidence whilst travelling.

As I arrived at the Museum on the first day, Ali Thomas, the Volunteers Project Manager, welcomed me. After getting my personal ID pass and electronic key card (which let me through all the doors in the Museum, exciting!) I met up with Alessandro Giusti, one of the curators in the Lepidoptera section, and my mentor for the week.

One of the first assignments was to process and edit images of Limacodidae (slug moths) for a PowerPoint presentation at the 19th European Congress of Lepidopterology in Dresden, Germany later on this year. The software I was using was very specialised, using various images of the same specimen at different focus lengths to blend together, resulting in a sharp final image. I then transferred the pictures over to Adobe Photoshop to do the final touches, editing out the mounting pins and generally enhancing the aesthetics of the image.

Photo showing the Parasa repanda moth from above.
One of the images I took of the Limacodidae (aka the slug moths), featuring Parasa repanda.

This task only took me the Monday morning to complete, so in the afternoon I started my next assignment: moving drawers in the Sphingidae (hawkmoths) Main Collection and Supplementary collection to different cabinets, in order to free valuable space for recently re-curated drawers. Before I began I had a brief discussion with Alessandro and Dr Ian Kitching (a Lepidoptera researcher in the Museum, who is particularly interested in hawkmoths) about the process of moving the drawers.

Photo showing the Museum's storage of the entomology collection.
Rows of storage holding stacks of drawers. These ones contain part of the Museum’s Lepidoptera collection.

Even though it sounds like a relatively simple process, believe me, it’s harder than you’d first expect. It took most of that afternoon to get my head round the whole system, but by the end of the Monday I seemed to have got the hang of it! Every drawer I moved was filled with all different species of Sphingidae, most brightly coloured.

One of the lessons I learnt over the week was that not all moths are the stereotypical brown pest that eat away at your wardrobe whilst you’re sleeping; moths are in fact more abundant than butterflies, with most species being more colourful than you’d think. It is estimated that out of around 150,000 species of Lepidoptera globally only 20,000 of them are actually butterflies…so why do they get all the attention?! All I know is that I’m now a lot more interested in moths than I was before this experience!

Throughout the week I completed a whole host of jobs, and one of these was to label and re-house four boxes of mixed macro-Lepidoptera from Oman. Similar to my previous jobs, it sounds a whole lot easier than it is. The pure nature of Lepidoptera specimens means that they are very fragile, so caution has to be taken when moving them; to prevent any damage forceps are always used to hold the mounting pins.

Many of the species in the Museum’s collections have a very special specimen, which is labelled with a red sticker, called the ‘type’ specimen. This is the first individual to be ever found and described as a new species, giving the species it identity and name. By comparing other specimens with the type specimen it can be determined if these other specimens belong to the same species or if a new species has been discovered. As you can imagine it was a huge privilege to see these ‘types’ up-close, even if it was a little daunting!

Photo showing moths in temporary storage and their final destination in a storage drawer.
Rehousing moths is a very delicate task due to their fragile nature.

My final day was cut slightly short as I had to catch the train home but I still made the most of the time I had left. Alessandro and I, along with a few volunteers, accompanied a group of other scientists in the Museum’s wildlife garden. Since the garden’s opening in 1995 an astonishing number of species have been recorded, with a fair few of these being moths. A moth trap had been set up on the Thursday night, so most of the Friday morning was spent retrieving and identifying the species for the Museum’s records.

Moths have always intrigued me but I would never have called myself a ‘moth-er’, but after my experience at the Museum I have been getting more and more into Lepidoptera so who knows where my interest will lead. My week at the Museum was a surreal experience, and I enjoyed every moment (especially as I could enter all the exhibitions for free in my breaks!) So I’d like to thank both the Natural History Museum for the opportunity and Alessandro for looking after me for the duration of my stay.

Thanks Billy, it was a great pleasure having you visit. If you are interested in volunteering or working at the Museum, follow those links to see what positions are currently available.