Butterflies of the night

Moth specimens in a museum collection
Australian species of moths Dudgeonea actinias from Townsville, Queensland in the Museums Victoria entomology collection.

Simon Hinkley told me something beautiful today. The French call moths papillons de nuit which translates butterflies of the night. The French are wonderfully insightful. In many circles butterflies are considered the rock stars of the insect world whereas moths are often given a bad rap. Moths have a reputation of eating clothes and scaring people at night. But moths are every bit as beautiful as butterflies, so it’s time that we think of them as the French do.

Two women reading a book
Prof Deirdre Coleman with Museums Victoria librarian Gemma Steele admiring monograph from the Museums Victoria Library, “The butterflies of Australia” by G.A. Waterhouse and George Lyell.

At the start of this year, Professor Deirdre Coleman (University of Melbourne), Museums Victoria archivist Nik McGrath, and entomologists Simon Hinkley and Peter Lillywhite began a McCoy Seed Fund project 'George Lyell Collection: Australian entomology past and present’. The George Lyell collection at Museums Victoria includes almost 12,000 butterflies and 40,000 moths. Museums Victoria Archives is the repository of Lyell’s correspondence, notebooks and draft manuscript of The Butterflies of Australia. The published monograph is in the Museums Victoria Library collection and the rare book collection at the University of Melbourne.

Museum scientist at work in a collection store
Entomologist Simon Hinkley working in the entomology collection store at Melbourne Museum.

The aim of this interdisciplinary project is to examine the George Lyell collection scientifically and culturally, and to share our discoveries with the wider community. If we can change some people’s minds about moths in the process, as the French say, tant mieux.


Written by Nik McGrath, Archivist at Museums Victoria

This article originally appeared as a University of Melbourne blog post.

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