The Natural History Museum London – Behind the Scenes 3

Conserving and digitizing butterflies

Butterflies possess some of the most striking color displays found in nature. As they fly from flower to flower gathering nectar, their bright wings seem to shimmer and change colors before your eyes. This type of color stems from the specific structure of the butterflies’ wings.

Butterfly wings are made of very thin layers of a hardened protein called chitin. On top of these chitin layers are thousands of tiny scales, that serve several purposes. Those may vary for different species of butterflies.

Besides being responsible for the magnificent color characteristic of butterflies, the scales also protect and insulate the insects. They aid in the flow of air along their wings as they fly. Scales may help the butterfly to soak up the heat that flying requires. Although they are strong enough to support the butterfly’s body in the air, they are also flexible to enable flight. Therefore, they are sensitive and vulnerable at the same time. Beyond rubbing scales off, you could break a butterfly’s wing if you handle it roughly. The upper wings, called the forewings, and the lower wings, called the hindwings, are both very fragile. A system of miniscule veins runs through the wings. If the vein on the forewing is broken, the butterfly will usually die.

The Museum’s historical butterfly and moth collection is revealing clues about the climate of the past and what conservation might be best for the future.

Why butterflies matter

Digitizing some of the most endangered butterfly species on Earth can provide important online data. These can be used to help plan land use and support the conservation of these species for the future. Due to the fragile nature of the wings and the butterfly in general, when “repairing” and or digitizing these specimens, great care must be taken.

Steve Brooks, Climate Change Researcher at the Natural History Museum (NHM), explains what we can learn from digitized butterflies:

Microscopes supporting restoration

There is more to an exhibition than what is on display. A lot of a museum’s treasures are hidden but need to be constantly maintained and protected. There are various materials that are subject to conservation, restoration, and digitization, including textile, paper, books, glass, ceramics, paintings, wood, metals, skeletons, and whole animals.

Behind the scenes, museum scientists, curators, historians, and conservators use a wide range of microscopic techniques to investigate objects and analyze the material they’re made of. They try to understand the composition of the objects and how they relate to other materials in the NHM’s and other museums’ collections. Continuous restoration and conservation are necessary to keep the exhibits in good condition for future generations. The specimens are precious, valuable both historically as well as scientifically and usually irreplaceable – they need to be handled with care. This requires technical skills as well as the use of state-of-the-art imaging solutions, which are sensitive, non-destructive, and contact-free. The microscopes used should provide brilliant optics to view inert or live objects. Huge exhibits can be investigated with transportable imaging solutions. All microscopy solutions optimize detail-accurate work on the specimen, microscopic analysis of structures, and materials as well as documentation.

For example, paintings and large specimens measuring several meters are not easy to handle. Stereo microscopes with flexible arms or boom stands give you the freedom to observe even such large objects directly in situ. A scanning electron microscope with an EDX detector is essential for chemical analysis of mineral samples, fossils and samples brought in for remedial conservation. They can also be used to analyze paint samples. As a result, the exact materials, age, and the origin of a sample can be identified.

To examine paint layers and paint pigments, high-resolution, high-performance microscopes with fluorescence illumination options combined with analysis software for investigation, analysis, and documentation are needed.

As seeing the smallest details of the butterflies is important to repair their wings carefully, ZEISS Axio Zoom V.16 is the instrument of choice. This zoom microscope achieves high resolution even in large fields. The higher the numerical aperture, the higher the benefit in resolution of the finest wing details, facilitating the repair and digitizing of the butterfly’s details.

When acquiring, storing, annotating, and documenting paper, books & photos, microscopy solutions also support the conservators in revealing and analyzing unique details of printing and finishing techniques, manuscripts or retouches and allow the finest paper structures to be observed in 3D.

Read the introducing blog article about science at NHM

Discover the “Make the visible” project at NHM

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The Natural History Museum London – Behind the Scenes 3

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