Treasures from the Museum Library and Archive

Maria Sibylla Merian’s Insects of Surinam

The Library here at the Museum of Natural History is lucky enough to hold a copy of Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Insects of Surinam). This large and stunningly beautiful book by the German artist, scientist and adventurer, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), was published in 1705.  Trained as a professional artist, Maria studied insects and observed their metamorphosis from an early age. She could be described as one of the earliest entomologists. 

A woman truly ahead of her time, at the age of 52 she travelled with her daughter to the newly-founded South American colony of Surinam to study insects.  Maria carefully recorded what she found in the most fantastically detailed drawings and paintings which were later published in the form of a book. 

The illustrations show insects in all stages of their life cycles, increasing knowledge of metamorphosis at the time.  By showing insects in their natural settings and on their preferred vegetation, she also highlighted the relationship between insects, plants and other animals.  Not only are the illustrations beautiful but they are also very accurate and detailed enabling them to act as the basis for the naming and identification of a number of species. 

“Maria Sibylla Merian must have been an incredible woman to undertake such a journey in 1699 without patronage or being accompanied by a man.  Once in Surinam, she also had to withstand the conditions of a newly-formed colony, which must have been very basic.  She is definitely a figure to be admired as a pioneering role model for women

and I love showcasing her work.”

Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist, Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History