Australia's oldest book, mini Shakespeare and The Mystery of the Missing Beetles on show

Book lovers are in for a treat when State Library Victoria reopens Australia’s largest exhibition dedicated to books, World of the book, to showcase a refreshed range of rare books on Saturday 16 November.

Specimen drawer of Buprestidae (Jewel beetles), Castlenau Collection, Museums Victoria.

More than 300 works will be on display, including the oldest book in Australia (a manuscript of Boethius’ De musica c. 1000) and a miniature Shakespeare Library that squeezes the playwright’s entire works into a 22.5cm high library.

One of the most intriguing displays is the Mystery of the Missing Beetles – a collaboration between the Library and Museums Victoria. It features an exquisite collection of preserved beetles dating back almost 200 years, alongside 18th-century texts on entomology (the study of insects).

Both the books and the insects belonged to the Comte de Castelnau, who donated his precious works to the Library and Museum 140 years ago.

State Library Victoria Rare Books Historian, Dr Anna Welch, said they recently discovered the books were missing hundreds of images, following a library user’s request to view them. This sparked an investigation.

“We were shocked to find that some of our rare historic volumes – which are carefully protected – had been mutilated. At first, we couldn’t ascertain exactly when the vandalism had taken place. After a series of conversations with colleagues at the Museum, we uncovered that the missing pictures were pinned into specimen drawers at the Museum and that the pictures had actually been cut out by the book’s original owner, the Comte de Castelnau.

“It seems that when he couldn’t find a particular insect, he would cut the relevant image out of his reference text and pin the paper version into his specimen drawer to complete the collection. We are so excited that Victorians will soon be able to see the two works displayed together for the very first time.”

Museums Victoria Senior Curator of Entomology, Dr Ken Walker, said the Comte de Castelnau was a beetle collector and entomologist who described new species of beetles.

“His beetle collection was his research collection, it was important to have representatives of all known beetle species to allow him to discover new species of beetles. When he did not have an actual specimen, he would supplement his collection with an image cut from his beetle books. The images are life-sized and coloured so when you first look at his beetle drawers, they appear to be full of specimens until you look closer and discover some of the specimens are indeed only cut out images. The illusion is excellent.”

Other exhibition highlights include a collection of the Library’s most illustrious medieval manuscripts and displays that pay homage to some of the world’s greatest writers and artists including Virginia Woolf, Gerald Murnane and Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde’s artistic accomplice.

World of the book celebrates the history of books and reading, drawing on the Library’s collection of over five million works, to make more of its most treasured items accessible for the public. It spans the birth of printing to modern novels, and items date from c. 2000 BCE to the present day.

The exhibition will reopen on 16 November in the Library’s Dome Galleries, Level 4. It is a permanent exhibition and the display is updated annually.

Free tours of the exhibition are available at 11.30am daily.

About the Comte de Castelnau
François Louis Nompar de Caumont La Force (also known as Laporte), the Comte de Castelnau, was born in London c. 1810 and died in Melbourne in 1880. His eventful life was spent travelling the globe as a French diplomat and pursuing his passion for natural history along the way, collecting specimens and publishing as a ‘gentleman amateur’. Castelnau and his collections arrived in Melbourne in 1863, where he was French Consul (aside from a short stint in Sydney) until his death in 1880. In 1866, his eyesight failing due a disease contracted in the Amazon, he donated his specimen collection to the Museum. Shortly before he died, he arranged the donation of his scientific books to this Library. At that time, the Library and the Museum both occupied the Swanston St building.

About State Library Victoria
Established in 1856 as 'the people’s university', State Library Victoria is Australia's oldest and busiest public library and the fourth most-visited library in the world, attracting those with curious minds and serious researchers alike. A place of learning and discovery for all Victorians, the Library houses items that showcase Victoria's cultural life, past and present, and makes them available through a range of services, exhibitions and cultural programs. It is home to more than two million books and thousands of newspapers as well as historic manuscripts, music, pictures and ephemera, with a focus on material from Victoria. Each year, more than 70,000 heritage items are added to its collection.

About Museums Victoria
Museums Victoria is Australia’s largest public museum organisation and the umbrella organisation for Melbourne Museum, Scienceworks, Immigration Museum, IMAX Melbourne and the iconic UNESCO World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building. Museums Victoria has been creating knowledge and experiences and building the State Collection since 1854. This collection is an invaluable record of Victoria’s environmental and cultural history and an amazing wealth of over 17 million items that have inspired discovery and a sense of wonder for generations.

Interviews are available with:

  • State Library Victoria Rare Books Historian, Dr Anna Welch
  • Museums Victoria Senior Curator of Entomology, Dr Ken Walker

For more information contact:

Natalie Silber - Media & Content Manager, State Library Victoria
[email protected] | 0413 256 516

Jacqui Loftus-Hills - Media Specialist​​, State Library Victoria
[email protected] | 0416 778 146

Jacqui Wilson - Media & Communications Manager, Museums Victoria
[email protected] | 0457 906 960

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