By Wednesday Batchelor, Collections Management Trainee.
Collections care includes a vast range of opportunities. In the first six months of my role I have had the opportunity to look after historic toy collections, package medieval jewellery, clean a dolphin skeleton, present taxidermy to the public, create storage for horse harnesses and witness the conservation of incredible objects and specimens, from ancient pots to six-hundred-thousand-year-old mammoth bones.
Another breath-taking experience I get to participate in is the monitoring and conservation cleaning of huge collections of moth and butterfly specimens of international significance, collected from all around the world and dating back to the 1800’s.
Some of these specimens were collected by the Victorian lepidopterist, Margaret Fountaine. She was born in Norfolk on May the 16th 1862 and spent some time in Milan training as a singer and also considered becoming a painter, but above all she loved to travel. After spending three days with Henry Elwes, a renowned English lepidopterist, she found her passion, and went on to travel the world amassing her incredible collection of butterflies.
Despite her detailed studies, her outstanding artwork and her dedication to the science of entomology, as a Victorian woman much of her early work was not taken seriously. However, she persevered and subsequently had articles and watercolours printed in “The Entomologist”. In 1912 at the Second International Congress of Entomology held in Oxford, the president of the Linnean Society, Edward Poulton, invited her to join; a dazzling success for a woman, when British scientific societies had been historically exclusively male. Only fifteen years before, Beatrix Potter had been unable to attend a reading of one of her own papers at the society, because she was a lady.
Whilst collecting butterflies in Trinidad, on the 21st of April 1940, at seventy-seven years of age, Margaret suffered a heart attack. She was found on a trail by a Benedictine monk, butterfly net in hand. Her watercolours were left to the Natural History Museum, and her entire collection (around 22,000 butterflies) was bequeathed to Norwich Castle Museum, along with a sealed chest with specific instructions not to open it until 1978.
When it was finally time for the chest to be opened, it was discovered that Margaret had kept twelve detailed diaries from the age of sixteen, discussing her travels, accurate paintings of the butterflies she studied, and the love interests she met across the sixty countries. Pasted in were also images, pressed flowers, and photographs of herself as she aged.
Now, over one-hundred-and-fifty years after Margaret Fountaine was born, we ensure that the Fountaine-Neimy collection of butterflies are kept safe from pest damage, are accessible for research and that her legacy lives on.