AAs a resident of Frankfurt, Fritz Geller-Grimm is proud that the naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian was born there on April 2, 1647. However, the head of the natural history collections at the Museum Wiesbaden resents his hometown for not having created a place for the famous researcher. Geller-Grimm complains that there is no Merian room in either the Historical Museum or the Senckenberg Museum. “As a Frankfurter, I would have wished that the city would recognize what she has in this personality.”
Now the biologist is in the process of setting up a permanent exhibition of the natural scientist in the Wiesbaden Museum. By 2025, when the Museum Wiesbaden will be 200 years old, a new room will be created that will deal with the phenomenon of change. This hall will primarily present Maria Sibylla Merian and her work on metamorphosis, says Geller-Grimm: “She was one of the first to research this topic.” It will be the fifth themed room in the permanent exhibition “Aesthetics of Nature” at the Natural History Museum Be collections, thus complementing the spaces on “Form”, “Colour”, “Movement” and “Time”, all of which build a bridge between art and nature.
This is another reason why Maria Sibylla Merian fits so wonderfully into the exhibition. Brilliantly, she was both a painter of flowers, encouraged in her talent by her stepfather, the still life painter Jacob Marrel, and a naturalist. Geller-Grimm notes that this was probably her undoing: although her work aroused attention and respect during her lifetime, Merian was later perceived primarily as an artist and no longer as a researcher – “as is always the case when you think about different things does”.
Raised silkworms first, then researched them
She is one of the co-founders of modern, enlightened science. “This woman changed our worldview,” says Geller-Grimm. Her interest in nature was certainly encouraged by her liberal and educated environment. Her father was the publisher and engraver Matthäus Merian. Even as a child, Maria Sibylla Merian was interested in animals and plants, their way of life and their classification. As a young girl in Frankfurt, she bred silkworms herself and later collected other caterpillars to research them.
And she was one of the first to systematically observe insects. The metamorphosis of the animals was almost unknown at that time. Her two main works – the book “The caterpillars’ wonderful transformation and strange flower food” (published in three volumes in 1679, 1683 and 1717) and the insect book “Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium” (first published in 1705) – were therefore a well-regarded success and were repeatedly relaunched. Naturalists like Linnaeus referred to her work. “She depicted the insects in a level of detail that no one has been able to do to this day,” says Geller-Grimm. “She remains undefeated to this day.”
He also points to their achievement of observing the relationships between living beings and their environment: these are ecological connections, even if the first definition of this came from 1866 by Ernst Haeckel. “She found out that the caterpillars do not feed on any kind of plant.” The peacock butterfly caterpillars can be found on stinging nettles, for example.