Museum and gallery staff put their favourite artefacts on display
People often assume that museums house mainly old collections, that have been amassed over centuries. A particular favourite of mine only came into Sheffield's possession as a bequest from Douglas Fearnehough's widow in 1983.
It consists of two cabinets of British butterflies, four stamp albums of pressed moths and butterfly paintings and a small library of entomological literature, although that bald description hardly does it justice.
The 20 drawers of butterflies are so exquisitely presented that they demonstrate the absolute pinnacle of setting techniques. But their value does not just lie in their asthetics but in the extent of the scientific data recorded on each pin and the variety and completeness of the species, forms and aberrations represented.
As a butterfly collector, Mr Fearnehough shows all the tenacity of the great Victorian collectors, with the responsible scientific approach of the late 20th century. The collection was acquired through the breeding of specimens between the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. It contains only British species but every unusual form and sub-species seems to be there, alongside all the more usual specimens.
The pressed moths represent a unique technique: the wings alone are attached to the pages in neat regiments under sticky-backed plastic, all immaculately presented with collection data. The paintings are even more outstanding, showing more than 250 species of swallowtail butterflies (papilio spp). These are hand-painted in watercolouracrylic, two or three to a page, and are flawless in their accuracy.
The papilios especially show Fearnehough's precision, his eye for detail and quest for perfection. They are not just beautiful to look at but a valuable reference work. I shudder to think what would have happened if he made a slip on a page. It would be fitting to see his paintings published alongside a biography that credited him with being one of the last great collectors of the millennium.
If there was ever a fire in the museum, this is the collection I would carry out with me, for the beautiful cabinet if nothing else.
Paul Richards is assistant curator of natural history at Sheffield City Museum, Weston Park, Sheffield S10 2TP. Tel: 0114 276 5619. He is researching Douglas Fearnehough and would welcome any biographical information. Contact him at the above address or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org