The George Lyell Collection

Australian entomology past and present.

In 1945 George Lyell finished the mammoth task of amalgamating his extensive moth and butterfly collection with the much smaller lepidoptera holdings, at the time, of the National Museum of Victoria.

This interdisciplinary project is the first to examine the formation of Lyell’s collection within its own cultural and scientific context, from 1888 when he captured his first butterfly until his donation to the Museum was complete and the whole exhibited to the public. We are using traditional research methodologies, such as selection and transcription of Museum Victoria’s rich but understudied Archives.

This Archive, together with the Museum’s printed record, is giving us a fuller picture of professional interactions and growing divisions between different members of the entomological community, amateur and professional. We are also learning more about the global circulation of Australian insects in the late 19th century / early 20th century.

We have a strong engagement platform, such as a series of blogs, a website, and digitisation to engage the wider public.


In 1951 Lyell’s Lepidoptera Collection, totalling 51,216 specimens (almost 12,000 butterflies and 40,000 moths), was donated to the National Museum of Victoria (predecessor of Museums Victoria). This collection, representing 6,177 species, and containing some 534 types, was far larger than the Museum’s own collection, and is of key importance in understanding Australia’s biodiversity and the impacts of climate change.

Outcomes / activities

Public and community engagement through events such as the Museum’s ‘Nocturnal’, feature article on the website of the Atlas of Living Australia, and interview with Richelle Hunt at Afternoons ABC Radio.

Prof Coleman presented research about the George Lyell Collection and Lyell’s relationship with fellow Lepidoptera collector FP Dodd at the Society for History of Natural History (SHNH) and Geological Curators’ Group Trading Nature conference in York in June 2019.

Project details


McCoy Seed Funding (2019-March 2020), University of Melbourne and Museums Victoria

Research partners

Melbourne Museum
Museums Victoria

Project team

Professor Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne
Nik McGrath, Archivist, coordinator at Museums Victoria
Simon Hinkley, Collection Manager, Entomology and Arachnology, Museums Victoria


Professor Deirdre Coleman
Nik McGrath