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Wallace’s insect collection

Wallace’s personal insect collection was acquired by the Natural History Museum from his family and consists of more than 850 individual insects housed in 28 drawers. In addition, 1 drawer contains pieces of mammal and bird skin. The specimens in the drawers are exactly as Wallace originally arranged them.

The first 24 drawers of insects (and the mammal and bird skins) came to the Museum in 2002 with the rest of the manuscript and book collection. Most of the insects are from South America and Southeast Asia and were collected by Wallace or his assistants.

The collection includes 2 very special drawers that were set up by Wallace to illustrate subjects he made significant theoretical contributions to: the display of butterflies showing sexual dimorphism, where the male and female of the same species have completely different wing colours and patterns; and the display showing mimicry in butterflies, where an edible species has evolved to look just like an unpalatable species, in order to avoid being eaten by predators.

The last 4 drawers of insects were found in an attic by Wallace’s grandson, Richard, in 2005. The specimens were mainly collected by Wallace and his assistant Charles Allen in Southeast Asia in the 1850s and 60s, although there are some from places they did not visit. The 219 beetles, bugs, stick-insects, earwigs, bush-crickets, praying mantids, grasshoppers, wasps, ants and flies had been badly damaged by insect pests over the years. However, Natural History Museum curator George Beccaloni managed to painstakingly glue the jigsaw of legs and body parts back together.

The result is 4 amazing drawers of insects that preserve Wallace’s original arrangement and which can be incorporated with the rest of the Wallace Collection. This portion of the collection includes some of the most spectacular insect species that Wallace discovered in Southeast Asia, such as the huge longhorn beetle Batocera wallacei, in addition to several of the actual specimens illustrated by woodcuts in his famous book The Malay Archipelago, in which he recounts his travels around the region.

A professional collector

During Wallace’s travels on the river Amazon (South America) and around the Malay Archipelago (Southeast Asia) he supported himself by selling duplicates of the animal specimens he collected. When shipping them home to England, he labelled the best specimens as ‘private’ as he planned to keep these and use them to study the geographical distribution of animals and for other scientific work.

After his return from the Malay Archipelago, Wallace wrote key taxonomic papers on some of the birds and insects he had collected – particularly Asian swallowtail butterflies (Papilionidae), pierid butterflies (Pieridae) and chafer beetles (Cetoniinae).

Around 1867 Wallace decided to sell his private collection. In his autobiography, My Life (1905), he mentions that he kept ‘…only a few boxes of duplicates to serve as mementoes’. These ‘mementoes’ are the very insect specimens that you can see here in the Wallace Collection.

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For enquiries about the Wallace Collection please email the library