UI Museum of Natural History gets grant to upgrade entomology collection
Friday, August 24, 2012

A building with thousands of insects sounds like a big bug problem. But for the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, the problem isn’t the insects themselves—it’s making sure they stay in the best possible condition.

Now, staff at the museum are getting some vital help from the State Historical Society of Iowa. A $14,305 grant under the Historical Resource Development Program (HRDP) will partially fund an upgrade in storage conditions and an overall reorganization for the museum’s century-old entomology collection.

Over the next two years, collections staff, student interns, and volunteers will carefully move the collection into modern museum-quality storage cabinets and boxes designed specifically for insect specimens. At the same time, staff will reorganize the collection according to current curatorial practices.

For students in museum studies, biology, and other UI programs, it's an opportunity to learn skills required to manage a large museum collection, including identifying insects, handling specimens, and processing data.

“Museum specimens are an invaluable resource for research and are also used in UI classes and museum education and exhibits,” says Cindy Opitz, the museum’s collections manager. “I'm excited about the opportunity to upgrade the storage conditions for our insect collection, which is one of our largest. This project will improve access for researchers and the longevity of the collection, and it will give students valuable, hands-on experience.”

Moving specimens one by one into the new storage system would be time-consuming enough with such a large collection. But this project is even more complicated because the specimens will be rearranged in a new order as they are being removed and re-housed.

“Right now, the specimens are arranged in boxes according to who collected them, where, and when,” says MNH Associate Director Trina Roberts. “But the modern standard in museums is to arrange them according to species and their place in the evolutionary tree of life. It’s as if we have a library of tens of thousands of books shelved by year, and we need to rearrange them by author—and the books are all so small and delicate that they can only be handled with tweezers.”

The Museum of Natural History holds more than 26,000 insect specimens as part of its zoological research and teaching collections. Many were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by UI faculty members and students, in the Midwest and on UI scientific expeditions around the world.

Scientists who contributed specimens to the UI collection include Bohumil Shimek, Henry Wickham, and noted Arctic explorer Frank Russell.

The collection includes four holotypes, individual specimens that are associated with the naming of a new species and that are of particular scientific and historical importance.

Research collections like the one at the UI Museum of Natural History are a primary source of information for biologists studying a wide variety of scientific questions. Because historic specimens hold unique and irreplaceable information about the distribution of species in the past, they are essential to studies of topics like climate change and the effect of human land use on biological communities. One key feature of the museum’s new storage system is that it will make it easier for scientists to remove and study individual specimens, and to use the collection without risking damage as specimens are handled.

“We’re grateful that the State of Iowa continues to support museum collections through the HRDP grant program,” says Roberts. “The age of our collection makes the specimens extremely fragile, and this grant will help us preserve them for future research, education, and exhibits.”