Today I went on an entomology curation training day run by NatSCA, and hosted by the NHM. Which was very exciting! And, most excitingly, I finally got to go through the Magic Door. You know the one, at the end of the Ichthyosaur gallery next to the incongruously placed Megatherium skeleton cast. The fabled door that Richard Fortey talks about in his wonderful book, Dry Store Room No. 1: the door leading to the Palaeontology department.
Not that I actually got to see any of the palaeo department; we were just using one of their meeting rooms as a base for the training course. I did, however, get to go behind the scenes of the Entomology department, including their impressive climate-controlled dry insect store, with row upon row of custom-made metal cabinets housing the wonders of the insect world. And also their common room, which is at the very top of the Darwin Centre and features a roof terrace with amazing views across London. I am so jealous.
The course itself was extremely interesting, and I learned a lot about how the NHM deals with the storage and conservation of its enormous and varied entomology collections. To give you an idea of the scale involved here, when the museum replaced their old wooden cabinets with the new metal variety, around 100,000 drawers of specimens had to be rehoused into new drawers as the collections were rationalised down from the original 12 different sizes of drawers into only 3 different sizes to fit in the new cabinets. That is a lot of specimens, especially when you are talking about tiny flies that you can fit hundreds or even thousands of in a single drawer!
The afternoon featured demonstrations of conservation techniques, including a method for topping up jars of specimens stored in spirit (industrial methylated spirit (IMS)) from which some of the alcohol has evaporated, causing a reduction in the concentration. The method shown by David Notton allows you to calculate the current alcohol concentration in the jar, and the concentration of IMS required to top up the jar and return the solution to the usual 70-80%, all using a handy colour-coded chart. We were also shown several methods for removing insects suffering from verdigris from their pins, including a fabulous device invented by one of the NHM’s curators many years ago which passes an electric current through the specimen to loosen it, accompanied by impressive sparks and smoke! Always a crowd-pleaser, and very effective. Although when I had a go, I failed to remove the moth because the pin was deformed and it got stuck at the bottom. Thankfully it was a worthless data-less specimen used specially for demonstrations such as this, so it doesn’t matter that it lost 3 of its legs and its head in the process!
I was very tired by the end of the day, but I have lots of things to think about, and if I ever get a natural history-related museum job, lots of new skills that I can use! And it was amazing to finally go behind the scenes of a museum that I have loved since I first saw it as a youngish child, even if only for a day.