Currently, I am studying for a Masters degree in International Heritage Management and Consultancy at the University of Exeter. A work placement forms part of my studies. I’m fortunate to be placed at RAMM working with a butterfly collection.

Mr Derrick Worton’s butterfly collection includes over 7,000 specimens of more than 70 different species. Many are now endangered or extinct in Britain. It is both nationally and internationally interesting. The collection is fascinating for a number of different reasons. I am lucky enough to be the first person to study the collection in detail since its donation to RAMM in 2015.

An extensive butterfly collection

My placement is not long enough to examine the whole collection. So I focused on some of the rarer species it contains. This included the swallowtails (Papilio machaon), black-veined white (Aporia crataegi) and large blue (Maculinea arion).

Within the collection there are over a dozen (English) large blue butterflies. This species was rare in the UK when it was first recorded in 1795. Due to habitat loss the large blue became extinct in 1979 – the last site was on Dartmoor. This beautiful species has been ‘brought back from the dead’ by conservation organisations. They imported breeding stock from Sweden. The specimens in Derrick’s collection, and others like it, are the only genetic record of our native large blues. Thus, these rare specimens have considerable scientific value.

The care and attention to detail Derrick took over this collection is clear. Two beautifully made wooden cabinets house the 7,000 specimens. One is camphor wood which naturally repels insects that may damage the fragile collection within. All sit in their neat rows held on stainless steel pins. The pins will not rust or corrode thus extending their longevity. Modern materials (plastazote rather than cork) line the drawers for safe handling of fragile specimens.

Stories from the archive

It has been enormously helpful to be able to ask Derrick questions about his collection during my research. He bred and collected many of the specimens himself. Others were gifts from friends or purchased.

The butterflies are rich in data detailing who collected or bred them, where and when. My research is just the beginning of releasing the information stored within. For me this fits well with RAMM’s brand, Home to a Million Thoughts. These butterflies represent one of the as yet untold stories that tell us a great deal about the impressive natural history archives of the South West.

Next steps

My interests lie in museums and their archives and it has been a great opportunity to catalogue part of this large collection. My findings will form a report for my degree looking closely at the variation in the butterflies and the broader context of collecting. It will also give me the opportunity to advocate for the importance of historic collections for the data they hold. We can use this data to study how species ranges alter through climate change or habitat degradation.

A drawer of swallowtail butterflies from Derrick’s collection is on display at the Museum. The swallowtail is the UK’s largest butterfly and a protected species. It is found almost exclusively on the Norfolk Broads. The black specimen was bred in captivity and is a very rare mutation. Derrick bought it from a dealer for £150.

Thanks to Derrick’s friend Barry Carrick-White for providing the biographical information.