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The Chalmers-Hunt Collection - Chasing after butterflies

A surprising and interesting collection for a library to hold - the Chalmers-Hunt Collection - is not, as is usual, a collection of books, but rather of objects. The objects in question number around 300 and relate to the art of insect collecting. This posting will take a look at the collection as a whole.

 

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Though perhaps overlooked it is nevertheless one of the most unique and unusual Museum collections to be found in the UK and comprises of an eclectic mix of ephemera, with some items acting as the last surviving example of its kind. This collection was the focus of a library project to conserve, audit and transport these fragile items.

 

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Items range from the practical and mass-produced to the more exotic, one-of-a-kind home-made instruments and equipment that were employed by natural historians from time to time. It clearly charts the development of insect collecting and the tools of the trade from the Victorian era to the early 20th Century. The idea to conserve these transient items for prosperity came from the eminent entomologist - John Michael Arthur Blake Chalmers-Hunt (1920-2004). J. Michael Chalmers-Hunt diligently collected these instruments over a long period of time before considering the NHM the proper repository for such a collection and kindly donated it to the Library.


This type of equipment was known in the early days of natural history collecting as the 'weapons of the chase'. This activity gained in popularity along with the thirst for knowledge of the animals and plants that help to make up our world. The instruments used to collect items and specimens developed and became more elaborate. The Victorian Age became known as the 'Golden Age of Natural History Collecting in Britain'. It was seen as not just a hobby but a quest for understanding. Natural History collecting on a large scale started to develop formally in the 17th Century - epitomised by the founding of the Royal Society in the 1660's. Superstitious beliefs began to be substituted for more objective, scientific ones and collecting for your own personal 'curiousity cabinet' became something of a fashion.

 

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With a seemingly endless mixture of materials and sizes the collection is made up of such items as nets, pins, collecting boxes, rearing cages, lamps, preservation instruments, measurers, setting boards, magnifiers and so on. These items are a great example of how insect collecting was achieved a hundred or more years ago; an age where amateur-expert entomologists roamed the countryside, readily equipped with home-made nets and personalised boxes to catch and study their mini beast of choice.

 

There are more images of this collection available via the Picture Library.

References and further reading

Chalmers-Hunt, J. M. (J. Michael)., 1994. Entomological bygones or historical entomological collecting equipment and associated memorabilia. Archives of Natural History, 21(3), pp.357-378.

Salmon, Michael A., 2000. The Aurelian legacy: British butterflies and their collectors. Colchester: Harley Books.