Nature of the Book

November 11, 2022 – September 3, 2024
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Throughout history, books were handwritten, printed, bound, and decorated using a wide variety of materials from the natural world.
Credit: Smithsonian Libraries and Archives



National Museum of Natural History
10th St. & Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC

Ground Floor, North Entrance

See on map Floor Plan

Nature of the Book explores books of the hand-press era (from the use of moveable type in Europe in about 1450 to the rise of mechanization in the 19th century) through the myriad natural materials—animal, vegetable, and mineral—that went into their making. From essential ingredients like flax, leather, copper, and lead, to the unexpected, like wasps and seaweed, the exhibition shows what the use of these materials can tell us about the book, touching on questions of use, process, global trade, and economy.

Nature of the Book features books from the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives’ rare collections, paired with specimens ranging from ochre, azurite, and cotton bolls to silkworm cocoons and wasp nests. It tells a story of both local resources and resourcefulness, and global influence—from Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa—that was essential to the Western book as we know it. Notable highlights include Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (London, 1729–1747), Francisco Hernández’s Nova plantarum (Rome, 1651) bound in tawed pigskin leather, Hokusai’s Hokusai Manga (Japan, Late Edo period, 1780–1868), and a gold illuminated partial Qur?an (Qajar-period Iran, c. 1800s).