Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop & Turn

Movable, pop-up, folding and multiple-construction books from the year 1570 to the present day comprise this Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ exhibition highlighting innovative book design. Although today pop-up books are often found in the children’s book section, the earliest movable books were tools to educate and document information, such as a calendar, the moon’s movements, or the inner workings of the human heart.

The exhibition features the art of paper engineering in the production of books with moving parts, such as peep shows, volvelles, accordion books and pop-up books, published from the 15th century to modern times. Viewers will receive an in-depth look at the structure and design of pop-up and movable books, with over 50 works demonstrating the diverse methods designers and paper engineers use to magically transform flat, static images in basic paper constructions into dynamic, multi-dimensional forms.

Throughout history, books with moving parts were tools used to educate and document complex concepts in science and medicine, as well as to supply teachers with innovative ways of presenting basic arithmetic and reading skills. Several layers of engraved images of body parts and organs as seen in Descartes’ Renatus Des Cartes de Homine (1662), or the inner workings of the mechanisms of a steam locomotive as seen in Moderne Technik (1912), were at one time the most effective ways to visually explain complex concepts of the structure of the body and the machine. Other movables called wheels, or volvelles, as seen in Calendarium and Apianus (1540) were developed to calculate such things as astronomical movement or the change of seasons on a calendar. Viewers can also relate to movable and pop-up books as toys whose primary purpose is to entertain children and adults, which were introduced in the 18th century. The show includes flap books with pull tabs and dissolving images that reveal answers to riddles or show cartoon-like characters, such as Dean and Sons’ Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper (1850) and Stacey Grimaldi’s A Suit of Armour for Youth (1824).

The exhibition demonstrates how pop-ups and movables contributed to and documented the history of ideas, how those ideas were transferred through the book and how they continue to teach in amusing ways. All the pop-up books are made by hand. Some of the most renowned paper engineers in pop-up history are included, such as Meggendorfer, Nister, Girard, Lentz, Tuck and Kubasta. Also featured are contemporary designers David Carter, Matthew Reinhardt, Robert Sabuda, David Hawcock, Bruce Foster and Chuck Fischer. This exhibition also features two interactive videos, a series of lectures by paper engineers and collectors, and a blog.

Watch a video about how to create a pop-up book by Sean McGee with Chuck Fischer and Bruce Foster.