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Museum House of the Book

Museum House of the Book

House of the Book is the oldest book museum in the world. The museum houses a collection of books from all periods of Western book history, including a considerable collection of medieval manuscripts.

The basis of House of the Book’s current collection is the former library of the book collectors Gerard Meerman (1722-1777) and his son Johan Meerman (1751-1815). Gerard and Johan Meerman’s nephew, Baron W. H. J. van Westreenen van Tiellandt (1783-1848), also an avid book collector, pursued an active policy to keep the family library intact and to buy books that had previously been auctioned off. He did not manage to reacquire all the books that were previously sold. For instance, the library originally owned 970 books that came from the Jesuits of the Collège de Clermont in Paris, a collection known as the Codices Claromonatani. Van Westreenen was able to buy back only a few manuscripts and fragments from that extensive collection. He re-united them with the family library. These manuscripts from the Jesuit library can be recognised by an ex-libris at the front of the books: Collegii Parisiensis Societatis Jesu. In total, Van Westreenen managed to recover 63 incunabula and 45 illuminated manuscripts from his uncle and nephew’s former collection for the library.

Early medieval manuscripts were originally not a part of the collection. Van Westreenen started collecting them only later in life. His ambition was to build a collection with examples of writing from all periods, to study the development of writing. When he died, the collection comprised 61 manuscripts from before 1300, including two eighth-century codices and a sixth-century fragment. He also bought manuscripts of works he also owned in early printed editions, and vice versa bought incunabula of works he already owned in manuscript, in order to provide a better insight into the history of printing.

Upon his death, the baron bequeathed his residence and the book collection to the state, on condition that the names Meerman and Van Westreenen would forever remain associated with the museum. Although the museum is now called House of the Book, ‘Museum Meermanno-Westreenium’ can still be read on the facade of the building where the museum is located (a former residence). We also find the names in the signature of the manuscript collection: MMW, in memory of the collectors Meerman and Van Westreenen, with their special interest in the history of the book.

Irene van Renswoude
P. C. Boeren, Catalogus van de handschriften van het Rijksmuseum Meermanno-Westreenianum (Den Haag, 1979)

W. A. Laseur, Jos van Heel, Het Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum 1848-1960. Een bijdrage tot de geschiedenis van het museum en zijn bewoners (Den Haag, 1998)

Kees Thomassen, ‘Willem H. J. baron van Westreenen van Tiellandt’, Nieuw Letterkundig Magazijn 16 (1998), p. 34-37

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