The Frost Museum’s Metamorphosis: Museum Reopens in Time for 50th Anniversary
By Asher Jones
After entering the museum, visitors who head toward the left wall will encounter a great swarm of insects. The pinned specimens are arranged in 16 repurposed insect drawers, configured in a four-by-four grid. Looking closer, visitors will observe that the insects are clustered, not randomly—but according to their taxonomic group. The eagle-eyed may notice that the size of each cluster is proportional to that group’s diversity: a cloud of flies, a battalion of beetles, a mass of moths and butterflies; just a smattering of scorpionflies, a handful of stick insects. Within the multitudes, 100 specimens are adorned with a number corresponding to a poster with more information about that species.
This showcase of Pennsylvanian insect diversity is just one of the new public exhibits at Penn State University’s Frost Entomological Museum. After closing its doors to visitors in 2013, The Frost reopened this month, coinciding with the museum’s 50th anniversary.
“People remember The Frost fondly because they took their kids here, or they were kids themselves who would come here,” says Andy Deans, professor of entomology and director of the museum. “I am hoping that I can inspire those people again, or future generations. We have tried to put a lot of thought and effort into making this space as engaging as possible.”
A Brief History of The Frost
The Frost Museum’s eponym Stuart W. Frost was a professor of entomology, specialist of leaf-mining flies, naturalist, and prolific insect collector. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell University and joined Penn State in 1918. Throughout his career, Frost collected hundreds of thousands of specimens from Pennsylvania and around the world, amassing a large personal insect collection that eventually formed the foundation of the current research collection.
The research collection and public museum were first unified under The Frost Entomological Museum name in 1969 by K.C. Kim, professor emeritus and former museum curator. “I think at that time there was also this realization that this is more than just a research collection, it’s an opportunity to engage the public,” says Deans. “Stuart Frost always had this interest in sharing his love for insects and insect biology with the public. He wrote articles about insect stamps, insects in art, and insects in different cultures. Frost wasn’t just a scientist; he was also interested in this intersection of insect biology and human culture.”
When Deans arrived at Penn State in 2012, the museum needed “freshening up.” The research collection was housed in outdated cabinets, and many public exhibits were beginning to fade and age. (A collection of photos of the “old” Frost is available on Flickr.) After renovating the collection room and modernizing the storage cabinetry, Deans set his sights on updating the public space. According to Deans, Laura Porturas, who joined the team in February as assistant curator, was vital to the development of the public exhibits. Deans also notes that Nick Sloff, multimedia specialist for Penn State Entomology, and Harland Patch, assistant research professor in entomology, “have both been instrumental in the design and fabrication of the exhibits.”
“I think that having a second person who was enthusiastic and excited about the museum helped get the public space ready,” says Porturas. “I do a lot of arts and crafts projects for fun, so I was really excited about the prospect of building exhibits and getting people excited about arthropods.”
The museum’s front room features insect-collecting equipment, information about collections, a timeline of The Frost’s history, and a glimpse of the museum’s oldest specimen—an apple blossom beetle (Tropinota hirta) collected in 1859. “One of our major goals is to teach people what entomologists in natural history museums do,” says Porturas. “How we collect insects, preserve them, and why we do it.”
In the back room, newly painted a dazzling shade of yellow, an exhibit will highlight the importance of bees and other pollinators. The space will feature an observation honey bee hive with live bees, bee suits and beekeepers’ tools that children can try out, and other interactive components. Deans and Porturas are also developing another display that will inform visitors about research at Penn State on invasive insects such as the spotted lanternfly and brown marmorated stink bug.
Deans hopes that visitors leave the museum with a greater awareness of the entomological research happening at Penn State: “And I want people to hopefully walk away with an appreciation for natural history collections and how they can be important resources, not just for understanding insects but also resources to get inspired by the natural world.”
The Research Collection
The Frost’s research collection houses more than 1 million specimens. Depending on the best method to preserve each species, the arthropods are affixed on pins, mounted on slides, slotted into envelopes, or submerged in jars of alcohol. By preserving specimens collected over time, The Frost and other natural history collections are valuable records of historical biodiversity, repositories for voucher specimens, references for species identification, and sources of data for ongoing research.
Specimens in collections are often linked with data such as geographic and habitat records, information about associated organisms, and even DNA that can be extracted and analyzed. Such data can be used for a wide variety of ecological and evolutionary research. “In terms of a rich data source, natural history collections are just a wealth of information that you can do all kinds of research on,” says Deans. “And they’re critically important for biological research overall. And I think people are increasingly recognizing and acknowledging that.”
Deans is working towards digitizing The Frost’s collection as part of efforts to enhance the accessibility of natural research collections for scientific research. A collaborative proposal involving several university entomology collections, including The Frost, was recently awarded funding through the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) program to digitize parasite specimens. The Terrestrial Parasite Tracker project will digitize and integrate arthropod parasite collections and their associated data into online repositories to facilitate research on human and wildlife heath. “We have this amazing louse collection—sucking lice (Anoplura), specifically—that’s probably one of the top three collections in the world with a lot of diversity and a lot of interesting host records,” says Deans. “So we’re going to finish digitizing that, and we’re also going to digitize our fleas, mosquitoes, horse flies, ticks, anything that’s a parasite.”
The Frost research collection will continue to expand as more specimens are added from collecting expeditions and by students who build collections in Deans’ graduate level entomology class each fall. “My favorite part of the museum definitely has to be the collection,” says Deans. “I’ve spent so much time in here, thinking about the collection. It continually inspires me.”
Connecting with The Frost
The Frost Entomological Museum is located at Penn State University’s University Park Campus. The museum’s hours will be 10–4 Monday to Friday.
For updates about The Frost, visit the Frost Curators’ Blog.