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The Fascinating Art of Paper Engineering . . . Movables

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 “Movables, ” which include books with movable parts such as flaps, wheels or volvelles, and pull tabs.

Drawn mainly from the collections of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library, and the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, the books demonstrate the changes that have taken place over time in paper engineering, as well as the continuing use and popularity of many of the oldest types of paper construction techniques. According to Van Dyk, “Authors, designers, and paper engineers have employed diverse construction methods and mechanisms to create pop-up and movable books that have educated and entertained readers for more than 800 years. In many cases, movable parts and pop-ups have been the most effective way to teach concepts such as alphabets and numbers to children, or to illustrate the human body by revealing the locations and positions of internal organs.”

An example of the latter is included in the exhibit, and falls into the category of volumes known as “Movables.” De homine [On man] was printed by Petrus Leffen and Franciscus Mayardus in the Netherlands in 1662, based on the work of René Descartes (1596-1650), the French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. “Movables” which have parts that are superimposed or layered on the page, include three basic construction types: flaps; wheels or volvelles; and pull tabs. De homine contains flaps–which were hinged on the surface of the page, and opened like a window, revealing an image below—that were used to illustrate the physiology of the heart.

“Movables” book: De homine [On man].

Another work in the “Movables” category is the Astronomicum Caesareum [The emperor’s astronomy], the earliest book in the exhibit. It was printed in Ingolstadt, Germany, in 1540, based on the work of Peter Apian (1495-1552), a German scholar who was famous for his writings on astronomy, mathematics and cartography. In the book, hand-decorated wheels or volvelles are used—paper disks which, when rotated, brought images and information into alignment–allowing the reader to chart the positions of the planets.

“Movables” book: Astronomicum Caesareum [The emperor’s astronomy].

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

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