Documenting at a Distance

10 Mar 2021

By Karen Banton, Assistant Collections and Learning Curator

One of the challenges of lockdowns and restricted access to the museum has been continuing the documentation work of our John Ellerman Foundation projects. But it hasn’t stopped us being able to get more of our Collections Online. One of the recent additions to the online catalogue, the Paul Lee Collection, is a collection of arthropods preserved in spirit, donated to Ipswich Museum by Suffolk’s County Recorder for arachnids, millipedes, centipedes, and woodlice. It was donated in two parts – an initial donation from 1991 and further material a few years later to complete the collection.

Unfortunately, the entirety of the Paul Lee Collection is not yet available, as only the additional material could be photographed during my limited time in the museum last autumn. The 1212 records that can now be browsed were collected between 1983 and 2008, mostly around Suffolk, and 68% of them are arachnids.


How To Do A Remote Inventory

The first challenge with this project was figuring out how to document the collection. Normally, I will set up a workstation in the store, with a camera and my laptop so that I can document and photograph as I go. But with limited access (and the threat of upcoming lockdowns), I had to adapt, so for the first time I went ahead and photographed everything without reading and transcribing every label first. After an intense week of photographing the tubes one after the other, stopping only to transfer the images from the memory card to the laptop, I had pictures of all the labels I could capture, usually at multiple angles, in the hope of being able to read all the text and avoid too many reflections on the glass. Which, as it turned out, was just in time before we were all told to stay home in November…


A picture of a camera set up. A DSLR camera mounted on a tripod angled with the lens facing the desk surface. Under the camera on the desk is a white piece of paper with a scale bar and colour chart and resting on a white rectangular piece of plastazote, a glass tube containing a spider and its label, which is the subject of the image being taken by the camera. A laptop keyboard and a pile of cut out labels are also on the desk; the labels all have ‘Photographed’ written on them.

The camera set up for label photography.


So, safely at home, I started documenting the collection at a distance. Working on the photos, they quite often had spiders that were now much, much bigger than they ever really were. It turns out that that is the answer to dealing with spiders when you’re afraid of them! You get such a close look, that you can admire their markings and just how delicate they can be, while knowing that there is no way you could accidentally jostle the liquid they are preserved in (tricking your brain into thinking they’ve moved). And of course, occasionally, you get an image where it looks like the spider is peaking out from behind the label and they’re suddenly adorable.


A composite image of four spiders. Each image is bordered by a black outline. Top left is a top down view of a small orb-weaver spider with red/orange legs, brown thorax, and black and white striped abdomen. Top centre is a side view of a Neriene peltata spider with pale orange legs and thorax and a silvery abdomen with a distinct while stripe near the top of the abdomen. Top right is a side view of a sheetweb spider, with orange legs head and thorax and a silvery-white abdomen with black spots. The bottom row is the image of a glass tube filled with 70% ethanol liquid with a label reading “Kenton Hills, Leiston, 62(TN)453637, Alt:10m, VC.25. Under dead wood. Car park. Scrub. Gorse and broom. 11/09/1994. Female. 70% ethanol”. To the right of the label, the head and the first two set of legs and part of the thorax of a wolf spider, is visible, giving it the appearance that it is peeking out from behind the label.

Three eye-catching spiders and one peeking out to say “hello” from behind a label. Top row (from left to right) a small orb-weaver spider, Hypsosinga pygmaea, a Neriene peltata spider, and a sheetweb spider, Neriene clathrata. Bottom row: a wolf spider, Trochosa terricola


So, there are some advantages to doing documentation work remotely… But there were some disadvantages too. In the hurry to get as much captured as I could, not all of the photos were exactly of what I needed, and I’m sure if I had the tube in hand, I would make out the handwriting better then from a picture. Looking back on it, I probably should have thought to label the tubes with numbers as I photographed them; instead, I had to do that afterwards, but that’s a lesson learned for next time…

In the end, only 50 of the tubes couldn’t be fully documented from the pictures, and, as soon as I get the go ahead, it should be quick enough to get that information!


What Spiders Are In The Collection?

The Paul Lee collection contains three orders of arachnids: spiders (Araneae), harvestmen (Opiliones) and false scorpions (pseudoscorpions).


A column chart with the occurrence of spider families in the collection by looking at the number of tubes in the collection, with the most numerous on the left and the least numerous on the right. Linyphiidae: 228 tubes. Theridiidae: 83 tubes. Thomisidae: 60 tubes. Tetragnathidae: 58 tubes. Araneidae: 53 tubes. Lycosidae: 37 tubes. Clubinidae: 32 tubes. Gnaphosidae: 24 tubes. Dictynidae: 24 tubes. Dysderidae: 15 tubes. Anyphaenidae: 15 tubes. Amaurobiidae: 14 tubes. Salticidae: 12 tubes. Agelenidae: 11 tubes. Hahniidae: 10 tubes. Liocranidae: 8tubes. Segestriidae: 6 tubes. Pisauridae: 3 tubes. Zoridae: 2 tubes. Oonopidae: 1 tube.

Figure 1. A column chart showing the relative occurrence of different spider families in the Ipswich Museum collection.


Spiders make up 88% of the arachnids in the collection and consist of 697 tubes, containing approximately 1300 spiders! There are 20 families of spider in the Paul Lee Collection. The most common family in the collection is the Linyphiidae, with 228 tubes containing 420 spiders. The Linyphiidae are a family of small spiders, and with 4667 species, is second biggest spider family in the world! The biggest spider family in the world, the jumping spiders (Salticidae), is the 13th most common in the collection, with only 27 individuals stored in 12 tubes.


Where Did The Spiders Live?

A pie chart of the habitat types where spiders were caught. They are grouped by similar habitat type. Woodland: 35%. Wet Woodland: 7%. Brackish wetland: 2%. Wetland: 1%. Saltmarsh: 1%. Wet Grassland: 3%. Grassland: 22%. Heathland: 4%. Scrubland: 8%. Disturbed habitat: 8%. Waste ground: 4%. Shingle: 3%. Hedgerow: 1%. Dune: were caught. They are grouped by similar habitat type. Woodland: 35%. Wet Woodland: 7%. Brackish wetland: 2%. Wetland: 1%. Saltmarsh: 1%. Wet Grassland: 3%. Grassland: 22%. Heathland: 4%. Scrubland: 8%. Disturbed habitat: 8%. Waste ground: 4%. Shingle: 3%. Hedgerow: 1%. Dune: 1%.

Figure 2. A pie chart showing the relative occurrence of different habitat types where spiders in the Ipswich Museum collection were captured.


Spiders can live in many different habitats, and often, when collections like these are made, they tend to have a focus on certain kinds. A quick look at the different habitat types shows that these specimens were collected in a variety of places, but that the two most common kinds of habitats were wooded and grassland.


An Excel generated map using Bing and TomTom map data of Suffolk and the surrounding areas showing where spiders were collected using blue circular marks. Areas where more spiders were collected are marked with larger circles. Circles are scattered along the coast from Felixstowe to Lowestoft, with additional areas of collecting being the Elveden/Maidenhall area and Ipswich, Nacton and Manningtree.

Figure 3. A map of Suffolk and surrounding areas showing the closest village, town, or city that a spider specimen was collected from. The larger the blue circle, the more specimens were collected from that area. The map was generating using Excel’s 3D Maps functionality.


Not all the collection is from the local area. A small number of specimens come from Scotland and South-West England, but the majority were collected in Suffolk. When looking at the Suffolk spiders there are distinct collecting hotspots. Nacton, Ipswich and Mildenhall are where most of the spiders are from.

This isn’t to say that that’s were most of the spiders are, they are everywhere after all, it’s just where these ones were found!


Where will your adventure start?