The most insulting letter I ever had!

by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant, and Kiah Conroy, placement student from Oxford Brookes University

James Charles Dale (1791-1872) was a pioneering English naturalist who devoted most of his life to entomology. Dale’s specimen collection and archive represent a unique historical record of the insect fauna of Great Britain and everyday life in the 19th century. Originally housed in more than 30 cabinets in the Museum’s entomology department, the Dale collection contains many notable specimens, including the world’s oldest pinned insect and several species now extinct in Britain.

Dale was also a prolific writer and the Museum archive holds his notebooks, manuscripts and around 5,000 letters from over 250 correspondents. They form one of the most important historical legacies left by any British entomologist. The individual letters were numbered by Dale and tied into bundles relating to the correspondents. While the bundles were great from an organisational point of view; in terms of long term preservation and accessibility this wasn’t exactly ideal. We were lucky enough to have a placement student from Oxford Brookes University who helped facilitate the first stage of reorganising the letters and rehousing them to ensure their longevity. Kiah shares her experience of working in the archives:

During my placement at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History I was working in the Library and Archives department. The work I did whilst I was there consisted of helping sort through the letters of entomologist James Charles Dale. This was a huge opportunity for me because I had never worked with archival materials before and it was something I was hugely interested in. Some might say archiving letters can be boring, but sometimes you stumble across really interesting finds. For example, when I was working on the letters I found one that Dale had addressed as ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ This is fascinating because his letters gave an insight into the relationships he had with fellow entomologists.

James Charles Dale (1791-1872)

The letter Kiah describes was from Reverend Henry Burney, an amateur entomologist who corresponded with Dale between 1837 and 1847. Although the correspondence is one-sided since we only have Burney’s letters to Dale, it is clear the two had a falling out over money which Burney owed to Dale. As Kiah was rehousing the letters she noticed that the correspondence between Dale and Burney became increasingly tense.

Dale had a habit of annotating many of the letters he received and his annotations on Burney’s letters are curt and cold- he was clearly unimpressed that Burney took so long to pay him back- culminating in his final comment that this was ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ Oh, the drama of the 19th century!

Along with archiving the letters, I also learnt how to catalogue archive material to a high standard as well as learning how to put the James Charles Dale Letters into the museum’s collection management database Emu. This was the most challenging aspect for me, because I had no idea how intricate museum databases could be. Luckily, the whole Library and Archive team were very supportive and showed me the steps. Overall, I really enjoyed my time at the Natural History Museum and I am very grateful I was given the chance to work there.

Bee beautiful

Our conservator Bethany Palumbo tells us how she restored a beautiful 19th-century papier-mâché model of a honeybee hive, created by master model-maker and anatomist Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux

Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux

Although the Museum’s collections are mostly of organic specimens, we also hold a fascinating collection of scientific models made to represent the natural world, made from all types of materials, from wax and cardboard to plaster and paint.

We are lucky enough to own a model made by esteemed French anatomist Louis Auzoux (1797-1880), who in the late 19th century developed a method of building strong yet light papier-mâché models that could be taken apart and rebuilt, allowing internal elements such as tissues and organs to be studied in detail.

Model of a honeybee hive in box with six bees, by Louis Auzoux

While Auzoux made many models demonstrating human anatomy, he later expanded his business to include magnified models of plants and insects. The model we have is of a honeybee hive, containing six beautiful bees.

The hive, painted with a protein-based paint and varnished with gelatine, is large enough to allow the viewer to see the fine details of the hive, including individual chambers containing tiny larvae.

As you can see in the image at the top of the article, the bees themselves are also intricately painted, with rabbit hair used to simulate their natural fuzz, and delicate wings constructed from metal wire.

While there was much to admire about this model, it was in received in poor condition. Previous restoration attempts had introduced many materials that were now failing. There were fills, constructed of paper, applied to areas in an attempt to hide cracks in the original model. These were covered in oil paint, which was dripping over the original paintwork and had become brittle and discoloured.

Oil paint layers were peeling from the model

The whole hive was coated in a layer of cellulose nitrate film, a popular coating in the mid-20th century which was used as protection and to create a gloss finish. This coating doesn’t age well, resulting in peeling. It had also been applied to the bees themselves, clumping together the bee ‘fuzz’ and disguising the paintwork underneath.

The priority for treatment was to return the model to its original form while stabilising it for the future.

I undertook treatment in several stages over the course of six months. First, the cellulose nitrate film was removed from all areas using acetone, which could be applied with a cotton bud and fortunately didn’t affect the paint layer beneath.

Fill material used to cover previous damage had become discoloured

The next stage was to remove the discoloured oil paint from the hive. This was done manually using metal and wooden tools lubricated with white spirit, which were used to gently scrape the surface under magnification. This revealed old fills on the hive, made from a combination of plastic tape, paper and old adhesives which also needed to be removed. They were easily softened with water and gently peeled away.

Once all unstable introduced materials were removed, work began to stabilise the original model. The bees were suffering from paint cracking and peeling, as seen in the magnified photograph below.

Peeling paint at 6x magnification

We decided to consolidate this using gelatine as it would be in keeping with the original construction and could easily be reversed if necessary. Gelatine was mixed in water and warmed to make it a thin consistency, and then applied with a paintbrush. Once the paint flakes had softened they could be gently pressed down. Gelatine was also used with acid-free tissue to stabilise the cracks and areas of surface loss on the hive.

With the hive and bees now clean and stable, the quality of this piece and its incredible paintwork can really be admired. We hope to put it on display soon for all our visitors to enjoy!