The fascinating art of paper engineering is the focus of a new exhibit that is on display in the Libraries’ gallery at the National Museum of American History. Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn includes 44 books that range in date from the mid-16th to the early 21st centuries, creating a fascinating retrospective of volumes, which were designed and constructed with parts that move. Selected by Stephen Van Dyk, the exhibit curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library in New York, the books are divided into four primary categories according to each one’s paper construction type, as well as the mechanisms employed. The groups include Movables, Pop-Ups, Folding Mechanisms, and Fantastic Forms. The Office of Exhibits Central collaborated with the Libraries on the organization and production of the exhibit.
This post will focus on “Folding Mechanisms,” books which fold and unfold in an accordion-like manner, and include three basic construction types: carousels; tunnels or peep shows; and leporellos. The Sleeping Beauty, for example, is an exquisite carousel book, printed by L. van Leer in Amsterdam, ca. 1950, with illustrations by Roland Pym. The hidden complexities of its carousel shape, when opened to a 360° circle, can be seen from above.
In contrast, Van Dyk noted, “The tunnel book or peep-show, consisting of a series of illustrated cards edged with figures or scenery placed at a distance, one behind the other, creates the illusion of depth and perspective. A notable example is a beautifully hand-colored peep show called Garden Scene, created by German engraver Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756), who popularized these curious tunnel books in the 18th century.” Printed in Augsburg, Germany, ca. 1750, the book depicts an elegant dance scene set in a classical garden.
A particularly interesting mounting solution was devised for the “Folding Mechanisms” tunnel book, Garden Scene, a detailed description of which is posted on the Libraries' blog. Following an extensive conservation treatment by Vanessa Haight Smith to stabilize the book’s condition, a slotted rectangular box was fabricated out of plexi, into which the individual leaves of the tunnel structure were inserted. When looking at the book from the front, the full scene can be viewed, along with its magnificent perspective. As one walks around the side of the case, however, the scene dissolves into its individual layers, and the author’s engineering skills become apparent.
From their varied subject matter—scientific, theatrical, religious, historical—to their wide-ranging forms of construction—Movables, Pop-Ups, Folding Mechanisms, Fantastic Forms—the books included in Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn are multi-dimensional works of art. The exhibit captures the excitement and wonder, as well as the complexity and sometimes seemingly gravity-defying actions, of these captivating books.
—Lori Dempsey, Smithsonian Office of Exhibits Central