Many people assume that Houghton, as a rare books and manuscripts library focused on the Western tradition, is simply not capable of the diversity that other Harvard book depositories exhibit. The University has, after all, so many spaces dedicated to the study of groups traditionally ignored by academia: Schlesinger Library, for instance, centers around women and women’s history, and Yenching Library revolves around the study of East Asia.
When I decided to begin a project to link pieces in the Houghton collection to each of the Harvard College concentrations, therefore, I was both exhilarated and apprehensive. I knew that subjects such as history, English, and comparative literature would be a piece of cake: Houghton has a preposterous numbers of First Folios, letters to and from chiefs of state, and manuscripts in countless languages. Leaving those traditional fields, however, the struggle seemed all too real: Without even thinking about the sciences, where to begin addressing the fields in the humanities and social sciences that did not put Western civilization on a pedestal?
I discovered, in what was perhaps one of the most gratifying experiences of the summer, that Houghton has more than enough material to warm the academic hearts of students in disciplines as disparate as African and African American studies, East Asian studies, and women, gender, and sexuality studies—and that is absolutely not the bottom of the story.
The Houghton materials that cater to these fields are still rare. They, like their more illustrious, mainstream counterparts, also have a story to tell. Their stories, in fact, are probably among the most fascinating in the entire collection—especially because of the historical context in which some of these items were produced.
One such story is that of what is probably my favorite book in the entire Houghton collection: “Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium,” an entomology treatise on the insects of the colony of Dutch Guyana, the modern country of Suriname, published in Amsterdam in 1705. Nothing too out of the ordinary: Its title is in Latin, the international scientific language of the time, and its superficial description displays, in fact, a scientific European imperialism. The orthodoxy, however, stops there.
First of all, the actual treatise was written in Dutch, which is unusual for the time period. Even more unusual is the fact that the book’s author, Maria Sibylla Merian, was a woman—and not just any woman. An accomplished artist and scientist, she had been drawing and painting nature since a very young age. Though she did marry and have a daughter, she managed to publish three compilations of engravings before leaving her husband (in late 17th century Europe). Five years later, she moved to Amsterdam, and the city itself financed her journey to Suriname in 1699. Merian, unafraid, took her daughter with her. They returned to Europe in 1701, after Merian contracted malaria, and she published her magnum opus in 1705. She produced and, with her daughter’s help, hand-colored the insect engravings that adorn the book, which are among the most beautiful illustrations I have ever seen. Each copy of “Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium” is a unique testament to this woman’s vision and willpower. Merian was, against all odds, a self-made woman in an age when that was virtually impossible.
Unfortunately, she died in poverty in 1717 after a stroke cut her career short. Her opus, however, has survived, and she remains one of the progenitors of entomological drawing. Her beautiful plants and insects are scientific wonders and works of art. Most importantly, she carved her name in history when very few women of her time were able to do the same, and her story deserves to be studied.
As a classics concentrator, I had never imagined that the apple of my eye in a rare books and manuscripts library would be a scientific treatise, but that just shows how absolutely extraordinary this specific book is. Houghton is there for that and for countless other inquiries into areas that do not conform to the library’s stereotypical description. Merian’s treatise is just one instance of the collection’s broad range. Houghton is truly for all, and there is always more to see.
“Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium” can be found in HOLLIS under the call number Typ 732.05.567 or the HOLLIS number 002860975. To see it, students should call it up to the Houghton Reading Room and go to the library, which is located between Widener and Lamont.