The Fascinating Art of Paper Engineering ... Installing the Exhibit

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 (OEC) collaborated with the Libraries on the organization and production of the exhibit.

While the books are important as works of art, the design and engineering behind their construction is equally significant.  Ensuring that all of the parts that move can survive thousands of manipulations, and that all parts can be contained within the covers of the volume once it is closed, often involves complex planning and testing.  Additionally, the movable parts must successfully satisfy the design concepts that the author is hoping to convey.  

Moreover, designing and constructing brackets to support the books while they are on display is a considerable challenge.  Office of Exhibits Central’s plexi specialist, Richard Gould, worked closely with Libraries' conservator, Vanessa Haight Smith, to design and fabricate mounts that would protect the books’ fragile elements, while at the same time, allow the public to view the volumes as the authors intended them to be seen.  Bee: A Read-about, Fold-out, and Pop-up, by David Hawcock and Lee Montgomery, printed by Random House, New York, in 1994, for example, has folding layers which allow a full three-dimensional reconstruction of a honeybee’s body and wings, when the book’s covers are brought together back to back.  The book is supported by a plexi bracket that is attached to the rear wall of the exhibit case, which creates the appearance of the bee in flight.

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 “Folding Mechanisms” book: Bee: A Read-about, Fold-out, and Pop-up.

The Office of Exhibits Central also collaborated with the Libraries on the installation of the exhibit.  While Office of Exhibits Central staff placed decks, graphics, label bars, and brackets, Haight Smith carefully installed the books in their individual cases. 

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Movable Books 17 final

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Scenes from an installation of an exhibition. Left: OEC's Richard Gould attaches a plexi book mount to the back wall of an exhibit case.  Center: The Libraries' Vanessa Haight Smith installs the “Pop-Ups” book, Ricky the Rabbit, with illustrations by Vojtech Kubasta, printed by Bancroft in London, ca. 1961. Right: OEC's Kathleen Varnell and Rolando Mayen install entryway graphics.

In addition to the remarkable books that are on view, an equally compelling element of the exhibit is a video component developed by the Libraries. One of the two films on continuous display in the gallery contains an enlightening interview with book author and designer, Chuck Fischer, who describes the movable book design and construction process. The second video is a collection of stop-action shots which, when strung together, demonstrate the way in which a number of the books included in the exhibit open and close, revealing the parts that move.

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