MV Blog


John Abbot’s Lepidoptera

by Hayley
Publish date
8 March 2013
Comments (1)

The MV Library holds an important collection of 18th and 19th century scientific literature. Many of these books began as working tools for early museum curators studying the local fauna. Now, they form part of our rare book collection and are prized for their beauty and rarity.

The library's collection has an interesting history, forming from the amalgamation of two specialist collections from the National Museum of Victoria and Science Museum. Books have been purchased since the earliest days of the National Museum of Victoria, when the first director, Frederick McCoy, acquired important titles such as the entomological works of Maria Sybilla Merian.

While the library collection at MV is relatively small, it is also surprisingly unique. Library staff are currently working to identify titles unique to Australian libraries, a project which has exposed some real gems in the collection, such as John Abbot’s The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (1797).

Tab V, ‘American Brimstone Butterfly’ Tab V, ‘American Brimstone Butterfly’ via the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Abbot left his native England in 1773 for the colony of Virginia in North America, in order to procure specimens and make drawings of the local insects. Following the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775, Abbot moved to Georgia, where he spent the rest of his life recording the local insects and birds.

Tab XLIX, ‘Corn Emperor Moth’ Tab XLIX, ‘Corn Emperor Moth’ via the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Although he was a prolific natural history artist and well regarded in his lifetime, Abbot is not as well remembered as some of his contemporaries, who included famous naturalists such as John James Audubon. While he is thought to have created four to five thousand watercolours, most of them were unpublished or uncredited during his lifetime.

The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia includes 104 hand-coloured plates by John Harris, after original artwork by John Abbot. It's an important early work to depict North American butterflies and moths, and has been appreciated by scientists and collectors alike for its accuracy as well as its beauty. The introduction was written by James Edward Smith, a founder of The Linnean Society of London.

While it is exciting to encounter rare material in our collection, it is also nice to be able to share it. Luckily, the work has been digitised and is now freely accessible through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, so have a browse online or download your own copy of this rare work!


Gilbert, P. & Hamilton, C., Entomology: A Guide to Information Sources, London & New York: Mansell, 1990.

Gilbert, P., John Abbot: Birds, Butterflies and Other Wonders, London: Merrell Holberton and Natural History Museum, 1998.

Job, Frank, “The Library of Museum Victoria” in Rasmussen, C. (ed.), A Museum for the People: A History of Museum Victoria and its Predecessors, 1854-2000, Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications, 2001.

Rogers-Price, Vivian & Griffin, William W., "John Abbot: Pioneer-Naturalist of Georgia," Magazine Antiques (October 1983): 768-75.

BHL launch

by Kate C
Publish date
14 July 2011
Comments (8)

The Australian node of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is now live!

BHL is a project started by a consortium of American and English museums and herbaria that wanted to make historical biodiversity texts available online. These important books and journals are scanned, uploaded to the Internet Archive, and made available through the first BHL website. It's especially useful to scientists needing historical information about species, distributions and taxonomy, but it's also a fascinating site for anyone interested in natural history or rare books. Museum Victoria is managing the Australian part of the project in conjunction with the Atlas of Living Australia.

Since late last year, MV Online Developer Michael Mason has been creating a mirror site of the USA/UK original, ready to receive scans of Australian books later this year. At present, the Australian site provides everything the original site provides but with a different interface. "We started with the US model and changed the appearance and some parts of the functionality," says Michael.

Michael Mason Online developer Michael Mason.
Source: Museum Victoria

The first difference you'll notice is the local influence; the page is adorned with beautiful illustrations of Australian wildlife by Gould and Australian books are featured. Michael has also worked with designer Simon O'Shea to overhaul the way the book viewer looks and works to make it more user-friendly.

Screenshot of BHL Biodiversity Heritage Library Australia website.
Source: Museum Victoria

At present, the 34,596,227 pages in the BHL-Australian node come from libraries in US institutions so there is plenty of Australian content yet to be added. First off the rank in this national project are some of the in-house journals that have already been scanned by other museums including those of the Queensland Museum and the Western Australian Museum. Museum Victoria, with new book-scanning equipment, will be leading the development of new scanning projects starting with the complete archive of Memoirs of Museum Victoria containing the first scientific descriptions of many Victorian animal species. This will be very handy for biologists worldwide who don't have ready access to hard copies of this journal. Later on, rare books from MV and the libraries of other Australian institutions will be scanned and uploaded.

The high-quality scans are not just useful, but often quite beautiful. You get the whole book – covers, library labels, marbled endpapers and marks of age – not just the text within. Michael's favourites are the 1600s books in Latin with fantastical illustrations. "You'd never get to see these in a library, they're too fragile and valuable," he says. BHL puts these wonderful books in the hands of anyone.


Biodiversity Heritage Library Australia

Biodiversity Heritage Library

MV News: BHL visitors

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.