Friday, January 27, 2023

Books that made History

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Books of enduring value to scholarship, science and culture

The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century greatly accelerated the dissemination of knowledge and ideas. Printed books brought new insights to an ever-expanding readership. Some of these works were so revolutionary that they continue to shape our understanding of the world and our appreciation of science, art and culture to this day. From the oldest world atlas to a ground breaking pocket medical dictionary: the summer exhibition ‘Books that made History’ in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden) focuses on 25 of these world-famous books and their authors. The Leiden University Libraries (UBL) selected for the exhibition a number of items from their own collection, including works by Galileo Galilei, Albert Einstein, Anna Maria van Schurman and René Descartes. The knowledge festival around Leiden European City of Science 2022 formed the impetus for the UBL and the museum to join forces to place a number of ‘Books that made History’ in the spotlight from 22 June to 4 September this year.

Leiden is the European City of Science 2022. To mark this year ‘Books that made History’ presents 25 books in which insights and theories that have since become common currency first saw the light of day. What these books have in common is their close ties with the city of Leiden, from the founding of the university in 1575 to the present day. Some of the writers studied or worked there, others had their manuscripts printed and published by one of the city’s printing businesses, while a number of the works were rediscovered in the university library. Take Mare Liberum (‘The Freedom of the Seas’) for instance. This work has formed the basis for international law for 400 years – ever since its publication by Hugo Grotius in 1609. And Discours de la méthode (1637) by the philosopher René Descartes gave us the immortal words ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’).

We also see the doctoral dissertation by the very first female student in the Netherlands, Anna Maria van Schurman (1641), and the pocket-sized medical ‘dictionary’ of terms by Herman Boerhaave (1707). Works from a later era include notes by Albert Einstein on his developing theory of relativity (1916) and Theo van Doesburg’s influential periodical De Stijl (1917). We can also find books that made history in the fields of antiquity and archaeology. The exhibition includes Joseph Scaliger’s ‘On the improvement of Chronology’ (1598), in which he placed the chronologies used by a range of ancient cultures beside one another with the aid of mathematics, astronomy, and a good knowledge of the languages Arabic, Hebrew, and Ethiopian. Scaliger here laid the foundations for the chronology that we still use today. One work dating from 1818 is the inaugural address of Caspar Reuvens, the first professor of archaeology in the world – who was also the director of the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities – a true ode to his discipline.

Besides focusing on the content, significance and authors of the books, the exhibition also looks at the time in which they were written. The topics covered include the rise of universities and libraries, the emergence of printing, and the position of women and people of colour in these stories. In the accompanying audio tour and exhibition book, experts and ‘ambassadors’ from our own time breathe new life into the books with their knowledge, anecdotes, and personal reflections. Visitors are invited to vote for their favourite among the works exhibited. In the ‘voting room’, visitors can also suggest titles of remarkable books that should also have been included in the exhibition. After all, any selection of the 25 most important books is bound to be subjective.

Leiden and scholarship

All the works on display belong to the collection of the Leiden University Libraries. Leiden University was the first university in the Netherlands, founded in 1575. It is renowned for its substantial contributions in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. Prince William of Orange donated to the library the first book in its collection: a copy of the Polyglot Bible (in five languages: Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Syrian and Hebrew). Today, the collection comprises millions of books, tens of thousands of periodicals, hundreds of thousands of special materials, and access to a great many more digital files.

The exhibition ‘Books that made History’ is a co-production with Leiden University Libraries, and is supported by Leiden Kennisstad, Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, Brill Publishers, Cultuurfonds Leiden en the Friends of the Leiden University Libraries. The museum is supported by the Vriendenloterij.

‘Books that made history’, 22 June to 4 September 2022, www.rmo.nl

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