One occasionally gets the impression that certain book bloggers at The Guardian are stretching to find something to write about.
In her most recent post, Molly Flatt complains about the Victoria & Albert Museum’s new exhibit, Blood on Paper: The Art of the Book, calling it ”a beautiful morgue, where ranks of stylised books sit behind glass like crisp butterfly corpses pinned to velvet.” The problem? You’re not allowed to touch the items on display.
Of all the criticisms I’ve ever heard of a museum exhibition this has to be the silliest. Flatt seems to think that there is absolutely no value to be gained from simply looking at book art. She backs this assertion by claiming that she saw people trying to touch the sculptures in the exhibit. What she fails to explain is why book sculptures are any different than non-book-related pieces of sculpture. Of course people want to touch them, and I’m sure it would add quite a lot to the experience, but no one complains when they can’t finger the Pietà.
Does she think that people should just be allowed to handle these books and artworks as much as they want? Thousands of visitors each day? What a nightmare to have to monitor all those people and books to ensure that nothing was damaged or stolen, not to mention the simple wear that would occur with even the most well-behaved patrons. It’s almost unthinkable. Thus, the only option aside from glass and roping-off is to not display the pieces at all. What would you prefer?
Ms. Flatt also praises Stephen Fry in the recent Gutenberg documentary.
Thank heavens for Stephen Fry. Watching him finger a perfectly preserved original Gutenberg Bible in his programme about the German’s groundbreaking press was quite possibly the most moving TV moment of the year so far. “It isn’t a fragile little thing, like an ornament,” he whispered, all quivering, deep-throated joy. “After all, it was made to be used more than once a day… it’s a useful object’.
Fry is right about the Bible; it was originally meant to be a useful object. But what Flatt ignores is that in the intervening years it has developed important cultural meaning and, in handling it, Fry is a lone researcher in a highly controlled setting. No one would ever put a Gutenberg Bible, or any other rare book, on display in such a way that it could be touched by the general public. Yet I’ve never heard anyone complain about the New York Public Library’s Gutenberg being kept behind glass like a stuck butterfly. Most people think it’s awesome that it’s on display at all.
Flatt’s next argument is that, instead of visiting this exhibit to understand book art, the reader should pick up a paperback:
The contemporary book’s art lies in its practical, mass-produced nature; it is a social miracle we rarely notice because it fits our everyday lives so perfectly. The cheapness, lightness and uniformity of the humble modern paperback make it the heir to Gutenberg’s miracle – not the V&A’s elaborate, exclusive artistic tomes.
I love paperbacks and the way they’ve made reading material accessible. I’m a huge fan of Penguin. But Flatt doesn’t acknowledge that the experiences of reading a paperback and of seeing unique, visionary artwork in a museum are both valuable, if in different ways. They each have something to contribute to our intellectual awareness, each their pros and cons. Why can’t we fit both into our lives as bibliophiles?
Are books meant to be touched, held and leafed through? Of course. Is it frustrating for a book lover to walk through an exhibit of amazing books and not be able to handle the objects? Absolutely. But as adults we understand why we’re not allowed to do that, and know ahead of time that we will be using only our eyes to enjoy the art on display. If you want more interaction you should buy a copy of your own, or find a friendly librarian or archivist, if the book is available and not unique like some of the works at the V&A. But it’s hard to justify disparaging an entire exhibit based solely on the fact that you can’t handle the material.
PS: When I visit the glassed-in Book of Kells during my vacation in September I’ll be sure to feel thoroughly disgusted with the experience.