There is a welcoming quietness as you step into this department of the museum. You instantly breathe in a familiar smell – old wooden drawers and preserving chemicals – and see endless rows of metal cabinets, punctuated by posters with brightly magnified metallic forms. Upstairs, there is a precision and focus of study evident from the workstations with their piles of display boxes, loose pins and setting insects. Terracotta columns with engraved monkeys, foliage and fish run the length of the room.
In August 2010, the Natural History Museum of London acquired the private collection of Czech entomologist Oldřich Voříšek – his life’s work. At the point of photographing this collection it was housed in two hundred and twenty-one cardboard boxes, and seven glass collection drawers, already filed within one of the many metal corridors of the entomology department.
Within a specific entomology section, once an acquisition has been made it is routine that the specimens are incorporated into the main collection. This means that any personal arrangements are lost in order for a greater pattern and coherence to emerge. The systems that dictate these operations rely on academic agreements and reconciliations. Standardised cataloguing procedures have evolved in response both to the aesthetic sense of collectors and the need for high quality research material.
Voříšek’s collection contains 45,140 mounted specimens, which are all from the superfamily of beetles Curculionoidea, or weevils. There are 62,000 known species of weevil. They are the largest group of beetles, and 4,538 have been identified to species level in this collection. Nearly 750 of the weevils are ‘type specimens’ – they are the individual specimens that were used for describing new species by specialists.
The collection is inimitable, representing fifty years work across Europe and in countries belonging to the former Soviet States, at a point in time when few people would have been able to travel freely. The climate and thinly spread fauna means that fieldwork in the region is still challenging. Some weevils can’t fly and these, particularly, may be localised to limited areas. This means that a species found on one mountain range may not be closely related to a species in the next valley, so mapping the distributions of these specimens may contribute to working out their evolutionary, ecological and geographical history.
In the storeroom, the collection resides inside seven cabinets. Each cabinet contains five shelves and each shelf holds seven boxes. Opening the boxes, you find that some are almost empty – they have perhaps 10 specimens in a corner or running along one edge – the rest is left to pin marks. Each beetle is pinned through, slightly to the right of the midline of its abdomen. Very small insects are either pinned with tiny needles or glued on their right sides to paper points. The top label identifies the country and region where the specimen was collected, the collection date, and the name of the collector. The lower label gives the beetle’s binominal name.
Evidently some of these boxes are working surfaces, where specimens rest or sit before being definitively placed. Some weevils are parthenogenetic, and you see immaculately labeled rows telling you the specimens are female, confirming this detail. Other labels are oversized, stating only AFRIKA, CINA, FORMOSA, THAISKO.
Sometimes there seems to be pattern and logic to the layout of the cabinets, the boxes, and the specimens inside. Perhaps, between the spaces, pin marks and weevils, it is possible to see something of the thoughts, hesitations, and workings of Voříšek, and give some evidence of his processes and intellectual conclusions.
Owing to the vastness of the collection, it is impossible not to consider the motivation behind his work, and try to build a portrait of him. You think of his hands, quietly shutting boxes and closing doors, and finally closing his collection.
The full collection can be viewed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/nhm_beetle_id/sets/72157627565887608/