Natural History Collections

Elateridae from the Macleay Family collections © Michael Myers

"I shall take every opportunity of enlarging the Collection in all branches of Natural History, but I shall chiefly strive for excellence as a Museum of Animalia invertebrata.”
– Sir William John Macleay, 23 January 1874

The Macleay Museum’s Natural History collections were started by Alexander Macleay in the late 18th century in England. He collected, purchased and traded insects at such a rate that by the time he came to NSW as Colonial Secretary in 1826, this privately owned collection was one of the largest in the world.

His son William Sharp Macleay expanded and diversified the collection acquiring specimens from South Africa and the Americas. This effort was continued to a much greater degree by Alexander's nephew, Sir William John Macleay, who added significant collections of vertebrates and marine invertebrates.

Sir William John collected extensively in the Sydney and upper Murrumbidgee areas of NSW. He also purchased and exchanged specimens from throughout Australia, New Zealand, Mauritius, India, Indonesia, the South Pacific, North America and Europe. In 1875 he led the Chevert Expedition to explore New Guinea, during which he collected extensively from coastal Queensland, the Torres Straits, and southern coastal PNG. Much of this material was reported on by Sir William and his colleagues in the early volumes of Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales.

The collections amassed by the Macleays are some of the oldest and most historically important collections in the world, and include type specimens from many species. From 1969, a series of papers on Macleay Museum type specimens was published. Some of these specimens are in the care of the Australian National Insect Collection and the Australian Museum. However, research to verify the type status of these specimens continues, as does the search for undocumented types in the Macleay Museum.