The Peale Moth and Butterfly Collection of over 3000 specimens is one of the oldest and most scientifically valuable collections of North American insects in any natural history museum. The collection represents an unequaled historical and scientific resource documenting the butterfly fauna of the world. Particularly well-represented is the fauna of pre-industrial Philadelphia. much of which was lost from the city environs as it grew in the last century and a half.
Titian Ramsay Peale, youngest son of Charles Wilson Peale, and a member of the prominent Peale family of artists and naturalists, collected and stored moths and butterflies in 98 "book boxes" of his own design and construction over a period from 1828-1885 (Photo 4). The book box design protected this collection from the ravages common to museum collections of its day (museum beetles, light, and moisture). The box design also allowed detailed collection information to be recorded on indices within the "book covers" providing important scientific information lacking from most comparable collections of this time period (e.g. Box 4).
In addition to its scientific importance, the Peale Collection is significant in the areas of U.S. history, art history and history of the natural sciences. Titian Peale made significant contributions to 19th century scientific exploration, natural science illustration, museum development, photography, and natural history. Interestingly, this collection, formed throughout his lengthy adult life, intersects with all of these areas.
A complex mix of problems associated with rare books and with historic insect collections threatened the collection, including corroded insect pins, loose specimens, deteriorating or broken bindings and containers, and acid-induced paper deterioration. This project brought together entomological specialists, a natural history specimen conservator, and rare book conservators to work collaboratively to stabilize, conserve, and document this noteworthy natural science collection.
The specimens were studied and identified by entomological specialists (many of Peale's specimens were not identified during his lifetime), and a database was created capturing the locality data, identifications and specimen images. Natural science conservator Catharine Hawks completed the conservation and documentation work on the inner boxes (the specimens are housed within a glass and wood inner box, and held in the "book covers" by an outer frame). These boxes and their contents were removed from their outer bindings for the conservation effort. These inner boxes were opened, paper and glass cleaned (inside and out), specimens repaired, measured and photographed, glass repaired (if needed), and inner boxes closed and re-sealed.
All specimens and boxes have been digitally imaged during this conservation process (over 3000 images) by collection manager Jason Weintraub. Curatorial technician Elana Benamy also "cleaned" many of the images of extraneous matter (e.g., overlapping specimens) so that each specimen was framed and clearly visible for study on a standard background (e.g., compare a "cleaned" image (Box 21:specimen 25) with a raw image (Box 30:specimen 50).
Five boxes were left unopened. Two of these appeared to have never been opened since their creation and sealing by T. R. Peale, and these were left intact, since the specimens inside were in good overall condition (Box 9, Box 13). Two inner boxes contained specimens in individually sealed watch glasses and these were cleaned but left unopened as the specimens were in good condition (Box 23). One other inner box was of a unique metal construction and was left intact (Box 29). Eleven boxes conserved in 1996 in the preliminary conservation project were not re-opened but the exterior areas were cleaned and condition reports were made (e.g. Box 30).
Because of the necessary separation of the outer bindings from the inside specimen box during the restoration process, conservators Glen Ruzicka, Rolf Kat and technician staff at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, Philadelphia (CCAHA), were able to repair the bindings and paper covers without handling the specimens. All of the outer covers and bindings have been cleaned, repaired and conserved by staff of CCAHA. In addition, all of the Peale boxes were housed within archival storage boxes designed and constructed by conservators at CCAHA (Photo 3A, Photo 3B). After both the outer covers and bindings, and the inner box and specimens, were restored, conservator Catharine Hawks reattached the bindings/covers to the inner box.
Two additional archival museum cabinets were purchased to house the collection (Photo 1A, Photo 1B, Photo 2B). The entire area where the collection is housed was renovated, including wall and ceiling repair, painting of walls, construction of a research study bench, and upgrades of inadequate lighting (Photo 1B, Photo 2C).
Internet access to the collection was designed to allow the images of the specimens and boxes, and the data associated with the specimens, to be accessed by researchers, teachers, and the general public. This website and database was designed by Biodiversity Information Manager Dr. Paul Morris (this website at address http://data.acnatsci.org/peale.). Searches can now be made by searching on species identification, particular butterfly or moth group, or geographic location or simply selecting on images of specimens and or book boxes (Photo 2B). Included at the website is general information about the project, Titan Peale's life, project techniques, interesting stories about the species represented, acknowledgments and an access to provide comments. We feel this website is an extremely important step allowing access of this fragile collection and its data from anywhere in the world at anytime without having to visit the collection.
Jon K. Gelhaus