13 January 2013

Celebrating a Homecoming

Celebrating a Homecoming
The Return of the Fleming Collection

This morning, I attended the Ground Breaking Ceremony of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore's Cultural Centre. The new purpose-built museum, which is expected to be ready in 2014, will be home to some 800,000 fauna specimens that is currently housed in the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity (RMBR). The Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum will be a 7-storey building of about 7,500 sqm of which about 2,000 sqm is exhibition space.


Top : Prof Tommy Koh addressing the group of guests at the Ground Breaking Ceremony
Middle & Bottom : Artist's impression of the new Natural History Museum by W Architects

Amidst all the excitement of the future museum that will feature South East Asian biodiversity, a small group of us were celebrating a homecoming of sorts. About six months ago, Prof Peter Ng, the Director of RMBR met me and Mr TH Tan, a retired Malaysian entrepreuner, to talk about the acquisition of the iconic WA Fleming collection. For butterfly enthusiasts, students and collectors, the late WA Fleming (or Wicky Fleming) was one of the well-known collectors in the 60's and 70's in Malaysia and Singapore. Fleming was the author of "Butterflies of West Malaysia and Singapore" - one of two reference books that is a must for all butterfly enthusiasts in Malaysia and Singapore.

1st Edition of Butterflies of West Malaysia and Singapore (W.A. Fleming) published in 1975 and 2nd Edition of the book published in 1983 by his wife Mrs Alix Mc Cartney

After a series of discussions and negotiations, we were elated to learn that Mrs Alix McCartney, the wife of the late Wicky Fleming, and his son, Angus Fleming, decided that the permanent resting place of the Fleming collection should be at the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore.

The late Wicky Fleming

Wicky Fleming was a Scotsman who arrived in Selangor, Malaysia in December 1937 to join a London-based rubber company. During the war, he was interned at Changi Prison in Singapore and later at the Kuching Prison in Sarawak. After the war, he returned to Selangor as a planter.  He took up butterfly collecting as a hobby in September 1963 till the time of his death in May 1978. During the 15 years that he collected in Malaysia and Singapore, he amassed a collection that is one of the most complete Malaysian butterfly collections by a private individual during that era.


Angus Fleming wheeling the Fleming Collection at the arrival hall of Changi Airport T3, and one shot of the historic moment with Prof Peter Ng, Director/Raffles Museum

After Wicky's death in 1978, his wife, Alix returned to the UK in 1979 and his collection moved back to Straffordshire with her.  All these years, she and her sons respected Wicky's last wish that his collection must remain intact in its entirety and not be separated or any specimens sold off individually. On 8 Jan 2013, almost 34 years since the Fleming collection went to the UK, the entire collection reached Changi Airport Terminal 3. At 12:12 pm Angus Fleming, with the excellent facilitation of SIA ground staff, wheeled his late father's collection through the glass doors of the arrival hall.  It was a historic moment for the museum and for everyone involved in bringing the collection to Singapore.

Part of the Pieridae collection - well packed with pristine specimens that date back more than five decades!

In the Fleming collection, was a total of 8,723 butterfly specimens covering some 1,001 species/subspecies of butterflies from Malaysia and Singapore that Wicky Fleming collected over the period 1963 - 1978. A priceless collection and an invaluable reference collection for all butterfly enthusiasts in the region.

A box of the beautiful Lycaenidae butterflies from the Fleming collection

What is particularly important about this collection, is that the specimens are properly organised and accurately identified by Wicky Fleming and validated by other experts such as the late Lt Col John N Eliot. The specimens in the collection correspond very closely to Fleming's book, Butterflies of West Malaysia and Singapore, and also the 2nd edition of the book by his wife. It is an important reference for collectors and future students of butterflies who are keen to learn how to identify their collected specimens.

Angus carefully opens the boxes and checks the condition of the collection after the nearly 11,000 km journey from London

As we excitedly opened each box to check on the contents to ensure that every specimen survived the journey unscathed from Heathrow Airport to Changi Teminal 3, I was amazed at the pristine condition of the butterflies, and many looked as though they were still alive just yesterday! The collection is now in quarantine and put through a disinfection process to eliminate any pests and organisms that may have come with the collection. After that, the boxes will be carefully stored in a humidity and climate controlled environment until the new LKCNHM is ready and operational.

More shots of the well-maintained and preserved collection

As Prof Peter Ng says, Malaysia and Singapore are very different today from the days when Wicky was collecting butterflies. The environment has changed and the political situation has changed. Habitats have been altered by development and cultivation of cash crops, forests denuded and then there is climate change. This is why sustainable conservation strategies and rehabilitation of our green areas to preserve and enhance our remaininng biodiversity will only gain in importance. Even where development occurs, strategies have to be put in place from the outset, to look at how there could be reinstatement of habitats or even creating man-made habitats for our biodiversity to recover.

And so a collection of butterflies that is very important to science, education and research returns to the region from which most of the specimens were collected. Whilst many of our readers may feel uncomfortable at the number of butterflies collected, this scientific collection's value cannot be overstated. Without the knowledge and evidence that is embodied in this collection that was made over 40-50 years ago, we would have been less knowledgeable about butterflies today. This collection is not for sale, nor would any individual be able to put a price to any specimen. Eventually, parts of the collection may be shown to the public after the LKCNHM opens - with historical and scientific narratives about the butterflies and the collector, but that is a subject that will be presented in future blog articles.

Angus and Khew holding up a box of rare Nymphalidae butterflies from the Fleming collection

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK : Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum graphics by W Architects

Special thanks to the people who made the homecoming of the Fleming Collection to the region and to its permanent resting place at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum : Angus Fleming, Mrs Alix Mc Cartney, Mr TH Tan, Prof Peter Ng, Prof Dick Vane-Wright, Dato' Henry Barlow, Dr Tan Swee Hee, staff of Singapore Airlines at Heathrow and Changi, and staff of Raffles Museum of Biodiversity, NUS.

Media Report - Straits Times - 14 Jan 2013 : "Valuable Collection for Museum"

References :
  1. The Butterflies of The Malay Peninsula, A.S. Corbet and H.M. Pendlebury, 4th Edition, Malayan Nature Society. 1991
  2. Butterflies of West Malaysia and Singapore, WA Fleming, 2nd Edition, Longmans, 1983