Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Curating an Exhibit with Anne Alton and Gretchen Papazian

 Frank Boles

On October 15, CMU professors Anne Hiebert Alton and Gretchen Papazian spoke on a webcast about their roles as co-curators of the Clarke’s exhibit, “The Surprise and Wonder of Pop-up Books.” To begin the presentation, they shared a brief history of pop-up books and offered a virtual tour of the exhibit itself. But most of their time was spent sharing how they curated the almost 1,000 pop-up books available to them and selected the ninety books in the exhibit.

The answer: it was a deeply collaborative process that involved selecting books that best illustrated fundamental themes they wished to explore, balanced by the Library staff expertise in planning and implementing exhibitions. A few books they had high hopes for underwhelmed them. A few authors became favorites as the depth and breadth of their work became obvious. For everyone there was a substantial commitment of time, spent first looking at books and then thoughtfully discussing which books would make the best examples to illustrate a particular point or genre of pop-up books.

There was also a need to represent the work of paper engineers, both through time and in the audiences to which they appeal. How many old books versus how many new books? How many examples of the Jolly Jump-Up Family, who seems to have spent most of the 1950s popping up in their comfortable middle class life, or Disney-inspired Mickey and Minnie Mouse books, which should be balanced against examples of contemporary and almost abstract art books created by people such as David Carter and Philippe UG? Similarly, what to do with Courtney Watson McCarthy’s brilliant reinterpretation of Japanese artist Hokusai’s (1760-1849) nineteenth-century masterpiece, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”? Pop-up books are not just for children, but how best to work these varying themes into a single exhibit was a constant question.

Perhaps what was the most illuminating point made during the presentation was that, there was never a “final plan” to be executed. Rather the exhibit evolved each day up until opening day through ongoing discussion of what was available to display, what was possible to exhibit (a six-inch-tall pop-up does not, sadly, fit into a four-inch-tall exhibit case), how problems could be solved (a six-inch-tall pop-up does fit into a vitrine modified with a custom built seven-inch-tall plexiglass cover), and how one element of the exhibit interacted with another element. A harmonious balance of individual pop-up books artists’ sometimes conflicting styles and purposes was the outcome of this iterative process.

It was a fascinating evening that displayed both the intellectual and the practical aspects of exhibit creation. For those of you who missed it, the presentation can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdLudmJN9Ak