Sometimes, as 11 undergraduates learned during the spring semester, the most interesting thing about a book is not the words it contains, but the actual book itself. When, exactly, is an object a book, and when is it not? How does the physical book relate to its content? How does the way we use a book change our experience of it?
Those undergrads—whose majors range from art history to archaeology to the sciences to international studies—took a deep look at such questions in a course offered by the Krieger School’s Program in Museums and Society and taught by Rena Hoisington, senior curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The collaborative course, called Paper Museums: Exhibiting Books at The Baltimore Museum of Art, was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The class is also the seed for Book Arts Baltimore, an informal partnership among local institutions whose goal is to celebrate artists’ books and book arts with courses, lectures, and exhibitions. The participating colleges and museums cross-promote their related activities, such as a course on bookbinding and artists’ books at Goucher College and pop-up book workshops sponsored by Loyola University Maryland. Additional partners include the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins; Notre Dame of Maryland University; Maryland Institute College of Art; Walters Art Museum; University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Kelmscott Bookshop.
An artist’s book is both a work of art that’s a book, and a book that’s a work of art, explains Elizabeth Rodini, who directs the Program in Museums and Society. Often published by a small press, it might be a book that’s been re-worked by an artist, she says; or it can take a range of forms: it could be a sculpture, or look like a menu, or be presented as a boxed kit to be assembled. For some it might be a book that is intricately illustrated or beautifully bound. In the case of Book Arts Baltimore, the book-as-art also serves as a catalyst for institutions that usually operate in isolation to unite around shared interests: generating conversations beyond the walls of academia, encouraging cross-registration of students between colleges, and introducing the public to collections around town that—due to the light sensitivity of paper—are seldom offered up for view.
“By partnering, we are creating the space for a larger audience, and that’s useful to us in the university because we tend to speak to ourselves,” Rodini says. “In a room with [representatives from] the public library and a bookshop and a museum, we’re thinking about a world outside of our borders and maybe helping to make what we do more relevant.”
During the course, students helped to organize an exhibit showcasing a selection of the BMA’s artists’ books and related prints that will be completed in 2017, Hoisington says. In the process, Hoisington hopes they gained an insider’s view into the collaboration required to bring an exhibit to the public, and a deeper understanding and appreciation of artists’ books, both as works of art and for the role they played in 20th-century art. Their tactility, their intimacy, and the way they unfold sequentially in time make them unique, Hoisington says.
Beyond the class, Gabrielle Dean, who is the Sheridan Libraries’ curator of literary rare books and manuscripts, is excited about sparking greater interest at Johns Hopkins and beyond in the Sheridan Libraries’ collection of artists’ books. While most of us are familiar with the idea that Kindle and other technologies are changing our reading experience, artists’ books offer a rare opportunity to catapult our thinking about the interplay of text and medium into a whole new dimension, Dean says.
“Especially for young writers, it can be mind-blowing to see how the text changes through different presentations in different media,” she says. “Artists’ books remind us of the materiality of the book,” she says. “We’re hungry for contact with the physical world; artists’ books make that contact really rewarding.”