July's Object of the Month post is written by Alice Millard, Saturday Museum Assistant:
A new display case has recently landed in the middle of our Archaeology exhibition. Inside this new case are several random, but fascinating, objects from our collection. One in particular is housed in a drawer, the tray of insect specimens.
The tray is filled with an intricately arranged display of unidentified national and international insects, and also some moth-like Pegasidae fish which we think is a joke by the creator, Major Harry Cuthbert Jeddere-Fisher. It was purchased from him by the museum in 1928, the year of opening. Harry resided in Littlehampton after his military career in WWI as a Captain. Like for many of his late Victorian counterparts, the hobby of insect collecting was a common past time. Many even considered themselves amateur entomologists, including Winston Churchill.
Harry’s father was a Victorian ‘gentleman’ and thus we can assume was particularly well off. This would have allowed Harry the time and money to collect specimens, and possibly even travel the globe to do so. Since the Enlightenment in the 1700s natural sciences such as Botany were extremely popular, and with advances in equipment such as microscopes, and the studies of Charles Darwin, it helped to fuel people’s fascination with the minute. Publications such as ‘The Entomologist’s Weekly Intelligencer’ advised their readers of proper practises, the best capturing equipment, and trends. You would have had some degree of wealth in order to fund this expensive hobby. On top of this, the Victorian craze of cataloguing everything meant that the hobby often turned into an obsession.
But why were insects so popular?
Unlike today, the Victorians would have shared their day-to-day life with bugs, in their homes, in their linen, and even in their food. Children also grew up around nature far more than we do today. Entomology allowed them to gain an understanding of these creepy housemates. Insects also had an air of mystery to the Victorians, which suited their fixation with the gothic and supernatural. This we can see an example of in Alice in Wonderland in the character of the Caterpillar. Insects even made their way into fashion design and jewellery. Egyptology was also popular at the time, and the Ancient Egyptian use of scarab beetles in jewellery helped popularise this strange trend.
Why are these collections actually important?
These days we would feel very uncomfortable collecting masses of insects and butterflies, as we are more aware of our effect upon nature. Without these vast amateur collections, our studies of entomology would be at a disadvantage. Some museums such as the National History Museum have acquired extensive collections, and are constantly in use by scientists. The Victorians also helped to develop more humane ways to capture specimens.
Unfortunately, when the tray was purchased, the museum didn’t take the opportunity to ask Harry what the specimens were. He passed away in 1934 aged 48. However, that such an exotic collection as Harry’s has made its way into Littlehampton’s store is both valuable and endlessly intriguing.
You can see Major Jeddere-Fisher’s entomology collection in the display case located in the centre of the Archaeology exhibition.