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Books, Insects, and a Woman Leading the Way in Science

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National Book Festival Continues

This post is written by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

How would your students draw an insect?

De Europischen insecten, naauwkeurig onderzogt by Marian Sibylla Merian, 1730

The colorful and scientifically rich paintings of Maria Sibylla Merian provide a useful way for students to reflect on the history of scientific documentation, practice their own documentation skills, and learn about a groundbreaking female scientist. Along the way, they can engage with both primary sources from the Library’s collections and books, authors, and videos from the 2020 National Book Festival.

In the festival’s “Insect World” video, authors Wendy Williams (The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insect) and Edward D. Melillo (The Butterfly Effect: Insects and the Making of the Modern World) discuss the trailblazing Merian, who lived from 1647-1717. According to the authors, Merian was significant in several ways. Williams notes that Merian and her daughter self-financed “the first independent field excursion to the new world,” where they observed native insects and carefully depicted them with watercolors. As Melillo points out, these paintings were scientifically groundbreaking. Merian had “displayed for the first time all the parts of an insect’s life cycle in the space of one image,” though previously, many “thought that the different phases of an insect’s life cycle were different organisms.” Merian was also unique in depicting “insects in a context with their background host plants,” instead of abstractly by themselves, without a larger ecological context.

Show students Merian’s depictions of European insects and invite any observations or questions. Do students note the different life cycles of each insect or the larger ecological contexts? Invite students to speculate what the drawings might show or why the artist may have depicted them as she did. Why do they think she used watercolors? Do they think the artist painted on location, in one visit, or was some other process more likely?

Joe Palco from National Public Radio interviews Wendy Williams and Edward D. Melillo at the 2020 National Book Festival

After these initial reflections, ask students to listen to the author conversation between timestamps 6:25 and 12:00.  How might they revise their previous understandings with this new information?

Finally, challenge students to go outside, observe insects, and try their hand at drawing. (This could be a good opportunity to get them outside whether they are at school or home distance learning.) Encourage them to think deliberately about how they want to depict their insects. What materials do they plan on using? How many visits to a location will they make?  Do they want to depict the insect literally – like a photograph – or in some other way? What surrounding context will they include? How might the purpose of their drawing inform these decisions?

Interested students can also watch the full “Insect World” video, view Edward Melillo’s Live Q and A session or read the authors’ books. If you and your students watch the full “Insect World” video, you may  even notice other surprising connections to the Library of Congress! Let us know what your students come up with!


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