Little known, the Herbarium houses a uniquely important collection of dried plants. It was established in 1853 with the appointment of Ferdinand von Mueller as Government Botanist. Mueller was instructed to write an account of the flora of Victoria. He acquired overseas plant specimens to determine if local ones were new species, and numerous Australian specimens in order to delimit species and their distribution.
Mueller took every opportunity to develop a world-class herbarium which he called the Phytologic Museum of Melbourne. At his death in 1896 it contained almost one million specimens. Some were from a herbarium he started in Germany in 1840. Others came from a network of collectors throughout Australia, including explorers like Ernest Giles. Of the overseas material, the Sonder herbarium, which was purchased in 1883, is the most important. Owing to war damage in Europe, some of its specimens are now essential references in world plant taxonomy.
The first Herbarium building was erected in 1859-60 in the Kings Domain, midway between the Shrine of Remembrance and the present Herbarium. Being next to the Royal Botanic Gardens suited Mueller, who was not only its director for sixteen years but who also saw the institutions as indivisible. Mueller was devastated when the institutions were split after he was removed as director in 1873. Thereafter he struggled to maintain the reputation of the Herbarium by using his salary to pay for materials and staff.
Without Mueller's vital presence the Herbarium fell into the doldrums. It was reunited administratively with the Gardens in 1923, and in 1934 the original building was demolished and a new one erected near F Gate. The transfer to this building coincided with the centenary of Melbourne celebrations and was the result of a gift to the State by confectionery magnate Sir Macpherson Robertson. The Herbarium's fortunes further improved in 1937 with the appointment of J.H. Willis, who became the pre-eminent plant taxonomist in Victoria.
Since 1955 the journal Muelleria has published staff research. An extension to the 1934 building was finished in 1989, funded by the R.E. Ross Trust. The Herbarium now houses 1.2 million specimens; its services include plant identification, a library, and research into plant nomenclature, classification, ecology and uses. In 1999 the Herbarium completed a definitive Flora of Victoria published in four volumes.