Explorations in Rare Books

Buzzing bumblebees and colorful flowers outside, rare old books and friendly faces inside, Dumbarton Oaks is a scholar’s dream. This research institute and museum is also an intern’s dream, especially for this intern, having graduated college a few days before arriving in D.C. and eager to explore new places and studies.

This summer marks my very first visit to Washington D.C. and I am thrilled to spend it at Dumbarton Oaks. On the weekends I visit museums (less than two weeks in and five down already!), and during the week I am enjoying myself, learning, and seeing as many, if not more, historical treasures than on my weekend adventures. As one of two Rare Book summer interns, I am working on the creation of on-site and online exhibits for the two-day symposium on the Botany of Empire. This is the first year Dumbarton Oaks has had Rare Book interns so it is an especially exciting development and a fitting way to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Rare Book Collection at Dumbarton Oaks.

Rare Book Collection at Dumbarton Oaks

Rare Book Collection at Dumbarton Oaks

In preparation for the symposium, I am researching the history of botanical exploration in the eighteenth century. I am particularly interested in Alexander von Humboldt’s adventures in South and Central America, the global network of contacts created around Kew Gardens and other public and private botanical gardens to obtain plant specimens and knowledge, and the fascinating histories of individual plants valued for their economic potential. As an undergraduate studying History of Science, I dedicated a fair amount of time to economic botany, researching the origins, indigenous uses, European discovery, transfer and commodification of breadfruit in the 18th century and Hawaiian pineapple in the 19th century. When my senior thesis adviser told me about this Dumbarton Oaks internship, I could not believe my luck—a chance to create museum exhibits to share an extraordinary time period and stories with the public? Yes, please!

An illustration from P.J. Redouté's Les Roses (1817 edition) from Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection

An illustration from P.J. Redouté’s Les Roses (1817 edition) from Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection

The internship is also a sort of ongoing treasure hunt for primary sources and rare books to incorporate into the exhibits. The Blisses were wonderful collectors and philanthropists with impressive Pre-Columbian, Byzantine, and Garden Design and Landscape materials, but herbariums, herbals, and flora publications from the eighteenth century were not one of their many passions. These items are, however, in the Rare Book collection, usually tucked in quietly on the Garden Design and Landscape shelves. During my first visit to the collection, I saw illustrations of beautiful birds perched among natural habitats in Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1730), as well as Pierre Joseph Redouté’s Les Roses (1817, 1824-1826), created for Joséphine de Beauharnais and including roses from Château de Malmaison. Amazing primary sources await, yet if if you do not know the exact title, author, or date of an item, chances are you will not be able to find it or have a challenging time doing so.

However, even if you know which rare book you want to examine, locating the picture or text you want to analyze can also be an adventure. Many of the books in the collection are not digitized so there is no Ctrl+F keyboard shortcut for pinpointing a desired excerpt or image. Often, you must delicately turn each page of a three-centuries old document and hope you come across that passage or illustration you just know is in there somewhere. But that’s part of the fun of this opportunity, the quest for knowledge and chance to share amazing historical stories with the public. I’ve already experienced the thrill of realizing a book or facsimile from the 1700s is in the collection and another thrill when I turn a page and spot the exact picture or passage I was looking for—or, better yet, a description, plant naming story, or illustration I never knew would be perfect for the exhibits until I laid eyes on it. Between researching and gathering primary sources on amazing topics and being in this new town, I feel like an eighteenth century naturalist explorer, bound for exciting adventures.

An illustration from Augustin Pyramus de Candolle's Plantarum historia succulentarum (between 1799-1832), also from the Rare Book Collection

An illustration from Augustin Pyramus de Candolle’s Plantarum historia succulentarum (between 1799-1832), also from the Rare Book Collection

About me: I just graduated Harvard College this June after majoring in History and Science and minoring in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. I’m from Hawaii and would love to return home or travel abroad to pursue interests in biodiversity and conservation.

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