System Box (Tray) with Wasp

Tahani Nadim

Fig. 7.1 Box

Colour: white. Size: 115 x 90 x 40 mm. Material: recycled cardboard. Weight: 60 g. Cover: Chromolux paper, 80 gsm, glossy, embossed. Producer: Fapack. Inlet: plastazote, polyethylene foam sheet glued to bottom of the box. Contents: whole insects, insect parts, pins, labels, nightmares. Habitat: insect collection, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. Population trend: increasing as it replaces old or outdated storage. Mode of being: excessive but orderly. Likes: the smell of naphthalene. Dislikes: water.

Keywords: waiting, taxonomising, individualising


This rectangular box commonly appears without a lid. It is to be found in the insect collection of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, mostly in the company of similar boxes. It typically rests in so-called insect drawers, but it can also be observed on its own near the work stations of entomological researchers, as well as stacked with other boxes in the open supply shelves of the entomological collection. While in the latter case the box is devoid of content, in the former two cases it contains small insects, often in conjunction with labels, mounted on stainless steel pins. The box is made of recycled cardboard, which unlike plastic prevents the built up of electrostatic charge that could damage sensitive anatomical parts like hair, antennas, wings, or legs. It is distinguished by a) its relatively tall sides, precluding any contact between the top of the pin and any items which might cover the box, and b) its wrapping, which consists of white, glossy Chromolux paper, embossed with a faux leather pattern. The box has been folded using creasing, where (in contrast to mere grooving) a steel rule presses the cardboard into a steel channel, allowing neat folding without cracking. Accordingly, the folded edges are crisp and smooth, with an approx. 3 mm crease plane along its ventral edges. Its corners are held together by small glue tabs (not staples), which are dimly visible beneath the wrapping. Unlike the cigar and odd chocolate boxes that can still be found in some parts of the collection, this box is decidedly professional, that is, its sole purpose is to contain museum specimens. As such it is also properly ‘non-reactive’. This means that no chemical or material residue from its components detracts from or interferes with the properties of the object contained. The box is lined with a 0.7 mm polyethylene foam base – a lightweight, odourless, and buoyant foam, into which the pins are sunk and secured.


Boxes are reared by hand in the south of Berlin (Neukölln, Firma Fapack), where they reach maturity within two days before migrating to the Museum für Naturkunde in the north of Berlin. They begin their lives as sheets of recycled cardboard (usually 120 x 80 cm or 90 x 70 cm) before being cut to size, creased, notched, folded, glued, and covered with acid-free paper. This process involves seven machines and four workers. Upon arrival at the museum, boxes are stored on supply shelves in various locations within the entomological collection, their distribution and allocation managed by the insect preparator.

Fig. 7.2 Boxes waiting in factory


Boxes are waiting. Waiting to be filled, waiting to be moved, waiting to be stored, waiting to be nestled into an insect drawer with fellow boxes. They are patient. They will have to endure a lot of transport and traffic before they can slide into the mostly calm order of cabinets. But even then, their respite is prone to disturbances. If, for example, they are chosen to house a type specimen or the only specimen of a rare variation, they will most likely experience further perturbations. Also, they are liable to rearrangements in the wake of taxonomic revisions, admittedly not a frequent threat to their stillness, but a constant one nonetheless.1 Gazing at their solemn and unhurried presence in the various cabinets and shelves, it is difficult not to succumb to a notion of natural history as an essentially timeless pursuit. A steadfast circle of collecting, classifying, ordering. On closer inspection, though, it becomes evident that the box is definitely of a particular time. The glossy paper and its rather tacky faux leather embossing strike even the box’s manufacturer as ‘traditional’.2 Indeed, the Museum für Naturkunde is the only customer still requesting this sort of paper. The production specifications for the box were inherited from the Kartonagenfabrik Reich after the fall of the Berlin Wall (the museum is located in what used to be East Berlin). Instructions from the museum only specify that system boxes need to stay the same as they ‘have always been’.

Yet while the design of the box makes it a relic of the 1980s, its placement in some of the historical cabinets and insect drawers transforms it into a harbinger of the advanced order of a modern science. There the crisp, white, standardised box stands out in sharp contrast to the dusty, ornamental, wooden labyrinth of the insect collection, where different styles clash and disparate biographies have left their traces in records and routines. The box is thus perched atop a precarious assemblage which combines the practices of natural history with the demands of modern biology, two realities that have commonly been narrated on the basis of their irreconcilability. Rather than solving or settling anachronisms, daily activities within the museum continuously parley with obsolescence: QR codes are stuck onto nineteenth-century drawers, and a state of the art SatScan collection scanner is nestled amid a digitisation suite built with left-over furniture spanning more than a decade of styles.

Fig. 7.3 Boxes waiting in museum

In Use

The digger wasps arrived from Thailand. I did not witness their landing but I am most certain that they were transported in a box not unlike the system box. It was probably lined with additional supporting pins along the inner edge, and might have contained a cotton ball that would capture any head or leg or other body part falling off during shipping. Collected in the course of the Thailand Inventory Group for Entomological Research survey (2006–2009) – led by the University of Kentucky – they have been sent to Berlin for identification. Most are pinned, using minutien pins, fine stainless steel needles (0.2 mm). Some wasps, too small to be pinned, are glued to tiny triangular cardboard strips, so called card points. They all carry uniform labels noting the location of their capture, including GPS coordinates. The labels are yellow, following the colour codes first introduced by Martin Lichtenstein (1780–1857) to denote the geographic origin of specimens. The initial coding went as follows: yellow indicates Orientalis, white Palaearctic, light green Neoarctic, blue Aethiopos, dark green Neotropis and violet Australian region (Damaschun 2010). In preparation for our taxonomic examination, we grab fresh system boxes and group the wasps: the larger black ones with the blue metallic sheen go in one box, the two-tone ones (black head and thorax, rusty red abdomen) move into another, the tiny glued ones into another still. Carefully we pin each specimen into the plastazote that lines the base of the box, making sure that we do not bend the pins, and that the wasps are aligned evenly, facing the same direction, mirroring the neat rectilinear framing provided by the box.

In facilitating this first division of specimens, the box already proves its centrality to the taxonomic enterprise which, crudely put, is an attempt to find the right kind of box for the wasps. In more scientific terms, taxonomy seeks to identify and describe species according to more or less strict conventions and endow them with a name, more specifically, a Latin name consisting of a name identifying the genus and a second one identifying the species. Unlike the description, this naming follows an extremely strict nomenclature. Once the name is published, it sticks, and the wasps will move into the genus- and species-appropriate box, drawer, and cabinet. The box is part of the tailoring that things have to submit themselves to in order to fit the purposes of natural history. By entering the box, the wasp transforms into an ‘epistemic object’, suspended between the material and the conceptual and distinguished by its potential ‘to unfold indefinitely’ (Knorr-Cetina 2001: 190). The box aims to facilitate the gradual unravelling of this waspish object: its inspection, probing, and comparing, so that it will come (temporarily) to settle conceptually in the taxonomic lineage of digger wasps, and materially, in the appropriate cabinet in the museum collection.

Fig. 7.4 Our wasp in a box

There, boxes are arranged and nestled in glass-topped insect drawers, a composition which is referred to as the ‘tray system’. Using boxes and drawers, this system divides specimens order by order, family by family within the order, and genus and species within each family. This ‘tray system’ was most likely first developed by geologists, who used small open boxes, grouped in drawers according to location of extraction, to store and organise their minerals and rocks (Smith 1922). According to Smith, the tray system was adopted for zoological specimens by the United States National Museum in its hymenoptera (wasps, bees, ants, and sawflies) collection around 1910. The museum ‘tried a number of different sizes [of boxes], not only in the width (…) but also in the length, and after trying out all of them (…)’ it settled on what it considered ‘by far the most satisfactory way of housing the collection’ (S. A. Rower, cited in Smith 1922: 77). The tray system replaced the Comstock box and Schmitt box systems, which consisted of small wooden boxes with a solid lid attached on hinges.

In preparation for the wasps’ ultimate boxing, the box provides a provisional holding cell along which we shall construe differences, kinship, and identity. Formally, as part of a wider grid, it upholds the promise of order in natural history which Foucault (2007) associated with the figure of the ‘table’; like the list and the catalogue, the table constitutes a promissory genre of knowledge which allows us to pretend that the world is made up of parts that can be delineated, named, enumerated, and boxed. Like the standardised box holding so many different creatures, the table too allows for equivalence in the wilderness, allowing us to apprehend diversity even if this is only on a spreadsheet. That the box is standardised helps amid the sheer infinite variation contained within the cabinets. Boxing the wasp is the first step towards scientifically knowing the wasp, because only in combination with the box does the wasp become legible to the taxonomic apparatus which can now bear down on the tiny creature.

In order to identify the wasps, we need to craft elaborate descriptions of their bodies and compare them to descriptions and bodies of similar wasps, that is, wasps of the same genus collected in what is called the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. We order similar wasps from other museum collections, and collate taxonomic descriptions from the entomological library. More boxes containing digger wasps arrive: a wooden one from Linz, Austria, one from the Smithsonian, two large square cardboard boxes with lids from the American Museum of Natural History, and a system box carrying only two specimens from Naturalis in Leiden. Boxes are thus essential not only for containing but also for mobilising specimens, pointing to the importance of exchange in the making of taxonomy (Ellis and Waterton 2005). While the epistemic import of the cabinet has been elaborated by te Heesen and Michels as a ‘scientific apparatus’ (2007), the box too serves this purpose, albeit in less sturdy, faithful fashion. Unlike the cabinet, the box moves easily, and although it more often than not ends up in a cabinet, its traffic is less predictable. So far it has circulated around the spaces of the entomological collection, but it has also ventured into the exhibition area and it might, once the wasps have been identified and their descriptions published, be placed in another box and shipped back to Thailand.3

Fig. 7.5 Bugs in boxes

Fig. 7.6 Wasps in a box

The box gives the individual its coherence, shielding it from the intrusion of other specimens that are not of its genus. The spatial arrangement of the box thus mirrors the spatialisation that Foucault identified as being so crucial to natural history as it developed into a more systematic practice. With the foundation of botanic gardens and zoological collections, we witness, according to Foucault, a change of ‘space in which it was possible to see them [animals and plants] and from which it was possible to describe them’ (2007: 143). The locus of natural history, he continues, ‘is a non-temporal rectangle’, or, we might say, a box (ibid.). The rectangle of the box and the table are engaged in a process of purification, by which Foucault meant the purging of certain kinds of knowledge and apprehensions from the practice of natural history. But the box also indicates a spatial purification which came upon natural history museums in the nineteenth century when they began structuring their collections along two distinct activities: taxonomic research and public display. As an integral part of the museum’s collection, the system box is exclusively to be found backstage, that is in what is called the research or study collection, in contrast to the display or show collection (Schausammlung) that is presented to the public. No longer the sole purview of amateur enthusiasts, museum collections became structured according to scientific rigour and, importantly, had to satisfy the demands of the new taxonomic regime, such as the collection of large series (to evidence natural variation). Kohler (2006) describes how this led to the professionalisation of museum staff and the extension of the remit of curators’ work, no longer only caring for specimens indoors, but going out into the field to actively collect. The disarticulation of study collection and display collection is recounted as having been particularly acrimonious in the case of the Berlin museum where the newly opened building (1889, on Invalidenstrasse), while designed for a holistic collection open to researchers and public alike, was divided into scientific (research) and public (display) collections. This division, instituted by museum director Karl August Möbius (1825–1908), had already been in place at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and London’s Museum of Natural History, and was to become the model for all other European natural history museums. It was the effect of a novel ‘scientific rationality in which a search for laws as revealed by recurrences at the level of the average or commonplace came to prevail over the fascination with nature’s singular wonders’ (Bennett 1995: 41). Despite its focus on the normal, the division meant that boxes such as ours were hidden from public view.

On Show

In his paean to the tray system, Smith makes mention of the boxes’ penchant for spectacle: no longer do we have to remove each specimen for closer examination, but we can now place the entire box containing the specimen beneath the microscope. This reduces environmental interference and minimises the need for handling the specimens. And so I move the box containing the smallest of the wasps, the ones glued to the card points, underneath a Leica stereomicroscope. I adjust the two bendy arms of the additional light source so that their rays point inside the box, whose white insides reflect the light and brilliantly illuminate the specimens. It is a dazzling spectacle as the light and the magnification reveal the grooves, hair, veins, tarsal parts, mandibles, antennal segments, and intricate sculpturing of the body. The box becomes both a systematic tool serving the taxonomic cataloguing of specimens, and the setting for the ‘analytical staging’ of specimens (Kretschmann 2006: 80). Moving the box underneath the microscope’s lens, and directing lights and attention, detaches the wasps from their mundane surroundings, and renders them individual representatives of their species. But it also disjoins them from the stolid masses eking out an afterlife in the crepuscular ambience of museum cabinets:

[I]n the […] boxes, everywhere almost, the white deities who inhabited those sombre abodes had flown for shelter against their shadowy walls and remained invisible. Gradually, however, as the performance went on, their vaguely human forms detached themselves, one by one, from the shades of night which they patterned, and, raising themselves towards the light, allowed their semi-nude bodies to emerge, and rose, and stopped at the limit of their course, at the luminous, shaded surface on which their brilliant faces appeared behind the gaily breaking foam of the feather fans they unfurled and lightly waved, beneath their hyacinthine locks begemmed with pearls, which the flow of the tide seemed to have caught and drawn with it; this side of them, began the orchestra stalls, abode of mortals for ever separated from the transparent, shadowy realm to which, at points here and there, served as boundaries, on its brimming surface, the limpid, mirroring eyes of the water-nymphs. (Proust 2006: 885)

Sitting in the stalls of the Opéra in Paris, young Marcel Proust observes the boxes which have become the stage for the real drama, the Duchesse de Guermantes and her entourage. Like the wasps, they too are emplaced on the basis of name and family. The box here serves as a protective container that is essential for the maintenance of social order, but also as a scenic setting, a veritable diorama that allows the young Proust to craft his ingenious associations. The specimens in his box transcend their initial (human) form, become entangled with feathers, flowers, and minerals, and rise into an entirely new class of creatures, suspended in the semi-height of the bel étage but utterly other and unreachable. Proust was a keen reader of the works of naturalists like Henri Fabre, and his descriptions of Parisian society are tinged with the kinds of observational mannerisms one can find in the ethological accounts of modern biology.4

Proust’s tableau vivante found its match in the habitat diorama, a form of display where specially prepared specimens would be arranged ‘lifelike’ in front of painted backdrops that depicted their natural environment. While Foucault aligned the development of natural history to a succession of forms of knowledge (from show to table to series), the diorama combines these forms (2007: 286). Its invention – like the tray system, it originated in the American Museum of Natural History – is most often discussed as a response to the emergence of modern biology, which pitched systematicists against zoologists and museums against laboratories and other research institutions (Nyhart 1996, 2004). With respect to natural history museums, which were so adept at and, more importantly, adapted to the classificatory enterprise, modern biology posed a challenge as expertise (and legitimacy) moved to laboratories, field stations, and university departments. Karl August Möbius took over the Berlin museum in 1887, and not only separated the collection but strived for the display to go beyond a mere extension of the systematic catalogue of the scientific collection. Instead, he wanted the display to show the relationship between specimens, make associations across times and places, and generally imbue the display with sense and meaning for the benefit of a wider public (Sinn stiften) (Kretschmann 2006: 79). Foucault saw the shift initiated by Cuvier and, later, Darwin as a movement from classifying to a causal system – and morphology to functionality. It was with the recognition of evolutionary change that nature stopped being ‘a homogenous space of orderable identities and differences’; instead, an all-encompassing, continuous idea of life emerged that was, as Gary Gutting put it, no longer of time but in time (1989).

Inspecting the different specimens we had ordered, I remove all those collected in Thailand, China, Laos, Vietnam, India, and Burma, and combine them in a new system box.5 They will now serve as comparative variables in determining the identity of our wasps. It is an odd menagerie for creatures that are usually solitary. Much as the diorama offers a spectacularly theatrical scene, the system box too provides a specific perceptibility that, while certainly more sober than the diorama, can still contain drama. But the blandness of the box does its best to bracket off the imagination. According to Foucault, the removal of distractions, the exclusion of histories and general emptying out of context (the ‘purification’) was crucial to natural history (2007: 142). This convention of a purifying space carried into the stylisation of the laboratory environment, and indeed there is something to the box’s whiteness that signals a laboratory state. Suspended in between the white walls of the box, the wasp is no longer critter, nightmarish crawler, but specimen, ready to come apart under the surgical gaze of the entomologist. Fixed on the needle, and hovering under the spotlight, it shines, its strangeness both exaggerated and domesticated. The white arena of the box, emptied of its six-legged contents, exudes stillness. I am reminded of Jenny Diski’s ‘wish for whiteout’, the desire for ‘a place of safety, a white oblivion’ (in pursuit of which she sets sail for Antarctica) (2008: 2). Foucault noted oblivion, along with drama and alienation, as part of the resources that come with ‘[t]he flow of development’ and modern biology (2007: 286). Here visibility is no longer attained through ‘the grid of natural history’ (ibid.: 287). Instead, the box structures a perceptibility that, akin to a whitewash, erases reference points, horizons and shadows to find purchase in objectivity (distance, a plane removed from environment).

The oblivion of the whiteout was institutionalised in the space of the ‘white cube’, the quintessential exhibition space for modernist art. Pioneered by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and its founding director Alfred H. Barr (1902–1981), the white cube’s distinct feature is the apparent lack of any distinctive features. Like Diski’s imagined Antarctica, the sanatorium and the laboratory, the white cube is characterised by its emptiness and minimalism. Walls whitewashed, floors plain, all fixtures hidden away from sight, the white cube is stripped of all visual distraction and forces the viewer’s gaze solely upon the works of art which are hung at respectable distances from each other; sculptural works are placed in the centre of the room.6 What seemingly disappears in the white cube is context – any indication of a situation in time and social space. Unencumbered by politics and life, the art works can thus unfold their aura. For Brian O’Doherty, the white cube produces not only a specific aesthetic experience but works upon the art works themselves, which respond to the spatial conditions afforded by it (1999). This is then the ambivalence of the space: at once claiming neutrality to give art works their utmost autonomy, while also determining the production of a very specific kind of art work that was conceived in relation to the space.

The white cube is a disciplining space that manifests a clear distinction between the inside and the outside, so crucial to the conceptual and minimalist art of the time that was riding on the fantasy of interiority as autonomy. As Duncan put it, ‘what matters is their [the art works’] power to demonstrate the art-ness of art and to transcend the meaning of those other beer and soup cans that are not in the art museum’ (2005: 5). The system box, too, adjudicates between an inside and an outside, its border serving on occasion as a material and conceptual partition; maintaining the taxonomic order is a sort of border patrol. An additional advantage is that the box, once set into the insect drawer with other similar boxes, obstructs the spread of museum pests, bugs, and moths that consume their fellow insects. But therein also lies its impossibility. Because insects are countless. The boxes are wimpy safeguards for ‘what we all already know: that insects are without number and without end, that in comparison we are no more than dust, and that this is not the worst of it. There is the nightmare of fecundity and the nightmare of multitude. There is the nightmare of uncontrolled bodies and the nightmare of inside our bodies and all over our bodies. There is the nightmare of unguarded orifices and the nightmare of vulnerable places. There is the nightmare of foreign bodies in our bloodstream and the nightmare of foreign bodies in our ears and our eyes and under the surface of our skin’ (Raffles 2010: 201–02).


1 The journal Zookeys lists fifteen revisions for arthropods in 2015. The leading journal Zootaxa, published daily (!), lists four revisions in its August 2015 issues alone.

2 Interview, Firma Fapack, 30 July 2015.

3 The box containing the wasp was shown as part of the exhibition ‘Tote Wespen fliegen länger’ [Dead wasps fly further], Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, 3 March – 4 May 2015.

4 Incidentally, towards the end of his life, ailing and bedridden, Proust compared himself to a digger wasp as he ‘bestowed the digger wasp’s peculiar kind of care’ upon all the books he knew he would not be able to read. In a letter to his editor, Gallimard, quoted by Anita Albus: ‘Exiled from myself, so to speak, I seek refuge in the volumes that I caress as I am no longer able to read them, and I grant them the foresight of the digger wasp [...]’ (2011: 127, my translation). Digger wasps show interesting parental care as they paralyse their prey (such as grasshoppers) and drag it into the nest for their offspring to eat once they hatch.

5 All belong to the genus Alysson, which had been identified by the Museum’s digger wasp expert as the appropriate primary assignation.

6 O’Doherty characterises the removal of fixtures: ‘the firehose in a modern museum looks not like a firehose but an esthetic conundrum’ (1999: 15).


Albus, A., Im Licht Der Finsternis: Über Proust (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2011).

Bennett, T., The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, Culture: Policies and Politics (London; New York: Routledge, 1995).

Damaschun, F., ed., Klasse, Ordnung, Art: 200 Jahre Museum Für Naturkunde (Rangsdorf: Basilisken-Presse, 2010).

Diski, J., Skating to Antarctica (London: Virago, 2008).

Duncan, C., Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London; New York: Routledge, 2005).

Ellis, R., and C. Waterton, ‘Caught between the Cartographic and the Ethnographic Imagination: The Whereabouts of Amateurs, Professionals, and Nature in Knowing Biodiversity’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23. 5 (2005): 673–93.

Foucault, M., The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 2007).

Gutting, G., Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Scientific Reason: Science and the History of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

te Heesen, A., and A. Michels, ‘Der Schrank als wissenschaftlicher Apparat’, in A. te Heesen and A. Michels, eds., auf/zu. Der Schrank in den Wissenschaften (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2007), pp. 8–15.

Knorr-Cetina, K., ‘Objectual Practice’, in T. R. Schatzki, K. Knorr-Cetina and E. von Savigny, eds, The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory (London; New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 184–97.

Kohler, R., All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850–1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

Kretschmann, C., Räume öffnen sich: Naturhistorische Museen im Deutschland des 19. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006).

Nyhart, L., ‘Natural History and the New Biology’, in N. Jardine, J. A. Secord and E. C. Spary, eds, Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 426–44.

——, ‘Science, Art, and Authenticity in Natural History Displays’, in S. de Chadarevian and N. Hopwood, eds, Models: The Third Dimension of Science, Writing Science (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. 307–35.

O’Doherty, B., Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Proust, M., Remembrance of Things Past, Volume I, trans. by C. K. S. Moncrieff (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2006).

Raffles, H., Insectopedia (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010).

Smith, R. C., ‘The Tray System for Insect Collections’, Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 31 (1922): 77–81a.