Pop-up Books Are More Than Meets the Eye

Feedloader (Clickability)

Pop-up books? Sure, they sound like kid fare, but as the recent new exhibition at the National Museum of American History proves, they are far more than just that. "Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn," on view until next fall, not only showcases the history of the pop-up book, (which dates back to the 11th century), but also the intricate complexities that artisans have employed in creating these endlessly fascinating works.

When this visitor recently entered the darkened exhibit (many of the oldest pieces must be kept sheltered from light), the fantastical array of spinning carousels, giant spaceships, moveable skeletons, and airplanes poised for flight brought on an almost childlike giddiness.

Each book—the product of the author, the illustrator and the paper engineer—is ingeniously endowed with pull tabs, cut paper, string, boxes and cylinders. In some cases, the paper engineer proves to be doubly talented and serves as the illustrator as well. The exhibit showcases 53 of these works of genius, dating from the 14th century to modern times. A video explores the collaborative efforts among the three artists and a stop-motion film details the impressive feat it is to construct the pop-up book’s most revered and anticipated feature—the large centerpiece that unfurls in splendor when the book is opened and collapses between pages when the book is closed.

Modern assumptions make children the popular target of these wondrous works, but the exhibit quickly renders that notion myth. Anatomy, astrology, geometry, astronomy, theology, technology are just a few of the subjects the pop-ups in this exhibit cover. In fact, the oldest pop-up books were intended as instructional tools for adults, rendering difficult concepts into a kind of 3D instruction manual. The pop-ups in Euclid’s 1570 book, The Elements of Geometrie . . . help readers visualize geometrical forms and three-dimensional figures. More recent pop-up books, such as Sharon Gallagher’s 1984 Inside the Personal Computer uses similar strategies to help readers identify and understand the workings of a personal computer. Of course, books for children are featured in the exhibit. An 1850 rendering of the popular tales the Little Glass Slipper and Cinderella are sure to delight young visitors.

Stephen Van Dyk , director of the library at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City, said that the hardest part about putting together the show was deciding what would be displayed. “I had over 1,200 books available to showcase, but could choose just 53 books that best show the diversity.”

-- by Jacqueline Sheppard

Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn will be on view through the Fall of 2011 at the National Museum of American History.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.