Who mutilated the Compt De Castelnau’s rare books in the State Library of Victorias collection


In the winter of 2016,
mutilated remains were found in the
heart of Melbourne. The investigation that
followed would uncover a trove of hidden treasures. The culprit, though, was never
publicly held to account. I was contacted by a young
man by the name of Chris, and he was interested
in particular work. A work published in 1789 written
by Guillaume-Antoine Olivier who was a really significant
figure in the history of French entomology. The person requesting
the book was interested in seeing
one particular beetle. It was a particular
beetle he was doing as part of his PhD work. Neither of us had ever seen
those particular books before, so we went up together
to have a look. The first thing I noticed
is it had the book plate from the Comte de Castelnau. Comte de Castelnau left
the most important donation the library had received. He’d collected quite a
substantial collection of some of the key works
of natural history. And so there are some really
beautifully illustrated works about different types of
insects and about fish from around the world. They’re very valuable in
the market these books, and there are books that we
couldn’t procure or purchase today. But they’re also special
because they show us the working library
of a gentleman scholar in the 19th century. From our point of view,
they are irreplaceable. I started to turn the pages,
and it was truly magnificent. I suddenly came across a
page that just had a hole. That was when, to our horror,
we discovered these books were– Mutilated this book
has been mutilated. You know, it’s distressing. I was mortified because it
felt like under our watch– The role of being
a rebel curator is to be just one
link in the chain, passing it on to
the next generation. Now, I went back to
the shelf and as I worked my way through all of
the volumes had beetles cut out. Who would do this? You know, who would do this to
such a beautiful and rare book? Who, indeed, and why? Why target these books? The answers to these questions
lay in the 1860s when these books lived in a terrace house
which once stood right here in East Melbourne and belonged
to the French Consul General, a gentleman scholar who is
said to be the illegitimate son of a French King or an English
King depending on the source of the rumour. He was a man who
went by many names, but was known to
his few associates in Melbourne as Le Comte de
Castelnau, or simply the Count. Here’s a man who belongs to a
great and ancient noble family, is able initially to indulge his
passions of scientific inquiry and travel with family money. Castelnau had led an
expedition of four through the jungles
and mountains of South America in which
one man was murdered, another died, and he himself
left riddled with disease. He painstakingly acquired
one of the largest entomology
collections in Europe. And then, of course,
after the 1848 revolution, this family money seems
to have been cut off and he starts looking for jobs. Well, he went into
the consular service. He had various diplomatic
postings around the world. Everywhere from Brazil,
to Cape Town, Bangkok, and then in Melbourne. At one point while
Castelnau was here, it was the second largest city
in the world behind London. Castelnau died in 1880, the
very peak of Melbourne’s growth. More than a decade
before he died, Castelnau sold his beetle
collection to the museum after arriving in Melbourne. Beetles are the most common
life force in the world. One in every five named
animals is a beetle, and that’s what
Castelnau decided to make a collection of. So he travelled, but he
also swapped, and traded, and bought specimens of
beetles from around the world. Really interesting, the
Castelnau collection. When you pull a drawer out, and
there’s about 40 drawers of it. And you scan your
eye across the drawer and it looks as though
there are beetles throughout the whole drawer. It’s only when you begin to look
closer that you realise that, in fact, some of the
specimens are quite flat. Castelnau, being
a naturalist, he was looking for news species. So when Castelnau knew about
a certain species of beetle but he didn’t have a specimen,
he’d cut it out of books. And then he would paste it
onto a piece of cardboard, and then put it
in the collection. And that looks just
like the other specimen sitting beside them in there. And if anyone knew of this
link between books and beetles at the time, that
knowledge was lost. That was until a recent chance
conversation between librarians and curators about
the curiosities of their respective
Castelnau collections. It was suddenly mentioned
that it was quite odd because his beetle collection,
some of the beetles were just made a
paper pinned in. And it was like a kind
of light bulb moment. Suddenly our kind of
mystery was resolved. And in fact, the
books interestingly went from being kind
of mutilated damage to suddenly being
extraordinarily interesting things and a
part of the wider story. Castelnau now left us more than
just a story about the past. Within our lifetimes,
there’s lots of species becoming extinct. And so the new fossils really
are museum collections. And the Castelnau collection
allows us to look back– directly back– to see how we came
to where we are now, and then to be able to
predict and hopefully manage the future.

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1 thought on “Who mutilated the Compt De Castelnau’s rare books in the State Library of Victorias collection”

  1. Ace Hardy says:


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