Saving Moth Man: Conserving John Hampson’s Insect Art

Nora Frankel


John Hampson created intricate and works of art using insects as a medium.  These works used thousands of dried animals, mostly lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) and coleoptera (beetles) to create images, often of historical themes.  The Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium (St. Johnsbury, VT) currently owns Hampson’s entire collection of insect art, created in a period between his immigration to the US in 1860 and his death in 1923.  The piece General Slocum was fragile with large areas of loss, and the museum considered it too damaged to display.  Slocum was previously brought to Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC) for consolidation to stabilize the crumbling, aging insect bodies.  Following further funding, Slocum returned to WACC to address the aesthetic aspects of the treatment to allow for future display.  Due to the pictorial nature of the work, the second phase of treatment of Slocum focused on loss compensation and visual infills to enhance readability of the image.  As the piece consisted of several species across multiple genera, a wide range of techniques were required to create appropriate fills for lost or damaged insects.  While initially using real insect specimens was explored, it was determined that replicas would be more consistent, durable, and reversible.  Moths were replicated with Japanese tissue, utilizing digital printing, hand toning, and folding to achieve the appropriate effect.  Tissue wings were mounted on original pins and secured with Klucel G.  Where losses of beetles were distracting, replicas were hand molded or cast in acrylic resin from silicone molds taken from detached specimens.  The opalescent color on some species was replicated with mica powders and replica beetles were tone with acrylic paints.   

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2020 | Online | Volume 27