Category Archives: history of museums

Books and Representations of Books on Display at The Cloisters Museum

The Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located in upper Manhattan, quite near my studio. In fact, I think I might be able to see it, if I climbed up on my bench and peeked out the upper left corner of my window. Northern Manhattan is quite different from the rest of the city. It is where the Dutch purchased the island from the Native Americans and there is still even a farmhouse located on Broadway dating to 1784, which is now a museum.

The Cloisters was built (assembled?) in 1938, and consists of four medieval buildings imported from Europe. It is located inside the 66 acres of Fort Tryon park. There are also beautiful gardens, including a nice garden featuring plants used for making dyes and paints. Looking across the Hudson River, there is a stunning view of the Palisades of New Jersey which John D. Rockefeller so admired he purchased 12 miles of shoreline to preserve the naturalistic view from the park.

The Cloisters is not only my favorite museum, but it has my favorite painting,  The Merode Alterpiece. Note to the impecunious: although the Met recommends a $25 entrance fee, you can pay whatever you wish.

In April of 2015, I decided to photograph 34 actual books and works of art which contain representations of books which were on display. This was also a great chance to try a lot of handheld, low light photography with my new Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7, which is proving to be the second best camera I’ve ever owned. There are higher resolution images for most of these on the Met site, searchable by accession number.

If anyone would like to visit my studio, we could take a short detour to the Cloisters and look at the works, discussing what we can — and can’t — learn from looking at representations of books in art. Or you can can use this as a virtual or self guided tour.



This virtual tour starts on the main level in the Late Gothic Hall, and follows a counterclockwise path around the Cuxa Cloister, then jumps to the Gothic chapel, Glass Gallery and the Treasury on the lower level.



Antiphonal, Tempera, gold and ink on parchment, Italian, 1467-70 (60.165)


Detail, Altarpiece with Christ…, Carrara marble, Andrea de Giona, Italian, 1434 (62.128a-i)


Detail, Alterpiece with Scenes of the Life of Saint Andrew, Attributed to the Master of Roussillon, Tempera and gold on wood, Catalan, ca. 1420-30 (06.1211.1-.9)


Detail, Alterpiece with Scenes of the Life of Saint Andrew, Attributed to the Master of Roussillon, Tempera and gold on wood, Catalan, ca. 1420-30 (06.1211.1-.9)


Detail, Alterpiece with Scenes of the Life of Saint Andrew, Attributed to the Master of Roussillon, Tempera and gold on wood, Catalan, ca. 1420-30 (06.1211.1-.9)



Annunciation Triptych (Merode Alterpiece), Workshop of Robert Campin, Oil on oak, South Netherlandish,  ca. 1377-1444 (56.70a-c) This painting is a hyper real jewel.


Detail, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Alterpiece), Workshop of Robert Campin, Oil on oak, South Netherlandish, ca. 1377-1444 (56.70a-c)


Detail, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Alterpiece), Workshop of Robert Campin, Oil on oak, South Netherlandish, ca. 1377-1444  (56.70a-c) Ok, these are not books, but the next best thing: TOOLS! He is building two mousetraps.



Detail, Paschal Candlestick, Paint on wood, Spanish, Castile-Leon, ca. 1450-1500 (44.63.1a,b)


The Dormition of the Virgin, Oak, German, Cologne, late 15th C., (1973.348)


Detail, The Dormition of the Virgin, Oak, German, Cologne, late 15th C., (1973.348) Quite likely the most accurately depicted book in the entire collection. It is hard to believe this was once painted, and even harder to believe how someone could scrape the paint off! The detail in the position of the hand, the throw-up and drape of the book, and the anguish in the face is unforgettable.



Book of Hours, Published by Thielman Kerver, Paris,1504 (20.53.3)



Detail, Enthroned Virgin and Child, Paint on maple, Spanish, ca. 1280-1300 (53.67)


Saint Martin with the Virgin, Pot metal and colorless glass with vitreous paint, French, 1245-48 (37.173.2,.5)


Detail, Legend of Saint Germain of Paris, Pot metal and colorless glass with vitreous paint, Franch, ca. 1245-47 (1973.262.1)


Detail, Enthroned Virgin and Child, Paint on birch with glass, French, ca. 1130-40 (47.101.15)



Detail, The Annunciation, Carrara marble, Italian, ca. 1180-1200 (60.140)



Detail, The Adoration of the Magi, Limestone, Spanish, ca. 1175-1200 (3077.8)



Detail, Saint Margaret of Antioch, Limestone with paint, Catalan, ca. 1330-40 (47.101.13a)



Detail, Three Scenes from the Infancy of Christ, Pot metal and colorless glass with vitreous paint, Austrian, ca. 1390 (36.39.1a)


Detail, Tomb of Ermengol VII, Count of Urgell, Limestone with traces of paint, Catalan, ca. 1300-1350 (28.95.a-i)


Annunciation, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, South German, ca. 1480-1500 (1985.244)


Detail, St. Lambrecht of Maastricht, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, South Netherlandish, ca. 1510-20 (32.24.48)


Souls Tormented in Hell, Adapted from Dieric Bouts, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, South Netherlandish, ca. 1500-1510 (1990.119.2) BOOK BURNING!




Saint Peter with a Heraldic Shield, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, South Netherlandish, ca. 1520 (12.137.6)


Annunciation, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, South Netherlandish, ca. 1500-1510 (1972.245.1)


Detail, Saint John on Patmos with Apocalyptic Visions, Manner of Dierick Vellert, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, Antwerp? ca. 1520-30 (32.24.65)




Saint Jerome in his Study, Style of the Pseudo-Ortkens, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, Brussels, ca. 1520 (1998.304.3)



Detail, Bishiop of Assisi Giving a Palm to Saint Clare, Oil, gold and silver on wood, German, ca. 1360 (1984.343) It appears to be a sewn, but unbound book? A wrapper?


Detail, Reliquary Plaque with Christ Blessing, Walrus ivory, German, ca. 1200 (65.65.174)


Detail, Diptych with the Coronation of the Virgin and the Last Judgment, Elephand Ivory, French, ca. 1260-70 (1970.324.7a)


Detail, Plaque with Saint John the Evangelist, Elephant ivory, Carolingian, early 9th C. (1977.421) The inscription reads “The word of John soars to heaven like an eagle.” It looks like the eagle is carrying a small book. The plaque may have once been from a book cover.


Plaque with the Crucifixion and the Holy Women at the Sepulchre, Elephant ivory, Carolingian, ca. 870 (1974.266) Likely a central decoration for the front board of a Gospel book.


Detail, Evangelists Mark and Luke, Gilded copper and glass, French, ca. 1220-30 (2012.70.1,2)


The Cloisters Apocalypse, Tempera and ink on parchment, French, ca. 1330 (68.174) It is telling that the binding materials are not listed at all. For the Met, a book is the text and images..


The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreus, Tempera and ink on parchment, French, ca. 1324-28 (54.1.2) This book was recently beautifully rebound by Maria Fredericks in shaped mat board and alum tawed skin. Note the similarities in the opening and the end band between the book in the Merode Alterpiece and Three Scenes from the Infancy of Christ stained glass (36.39.1a)


The Psalter and Hours of Bonne of Luxembourg, Tempera, gold and ink on parchment, French, before 1349 (69.86)


The Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, Tempera, gold and ink on parchment, French, 1405-1408/9 (54.1.1a or b) Again, recently rebound by Maria Fredericks into two volumes.


Detail, Thirty Five Panels with Scenes from the life of Christ, Oak, French, early 16th C. (50.147.1) It appears the book is partially damaged.


Detail, Thirty Five Panels with Scenes from the life of Christ, Oak, French, early 16th C. (50.147.7)

The Ascent And Descent Of Man


The above photo is from Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 124, No. 6, June 1934, p. 35.  This is an early depiction of the ascent of man, and it is taken from the Peabody Museum of Natural History, at Yale University.  It was featured in a section of the magazine that reports on new Science news, so it must have been fairly recently installed.  The succession is gibbon, orangutan, chimpanzee, gorilla and human.

Recently, I saw the sign below on 23rd. St., NYC, and it was an ad for some online food ordering company.   I thought it was clever in depicting technological tool use, and how we become dependent on the increasing size of our tools, thus returning us to our protohuman stature?

descent of man

Looking At Pictures, Looking At Books

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC,  is currently exhibiting ‘Looking In:  Robert Frank’s The Americans‘. (1) The first edition of this book is the title that I have worked on the most over the years, currently five copies.  The reasons are  simple– the original Grove Press edition was perfect bound, so the pages are generally detached, or detaching. (2) When this is coupled with the fact that a first printing in good condition sells for up to $20,000, it becomes economically advantageous for the owner to have the book conserved.  I even had a magnesium die made from the title page for stamping the exterior of the drop spine box, since I tend to see this book every couple of years. Since I have spent many, many hours looking at this book, I was curious to see how I would interpret the images in a museum.  I also think this is the first time I have seen all the images from a book displayed  in a gallery.

americans die

Above is a magnesium die, reproduced photographically from the title page, used for hot stamping.

What follows are some haphazard observations on the differences between interpreting images in books verses looking at photographs in gallery setting, tempered by my experience as a conservator. (3)

Overall, there was more a sense of the similarity of the experience, rather than huge differences, in reading the book or looking at the images in the gallery. Perhaps it is because I’m already used to seeing this book in single sheets, rather than intact.  Perhaps it is because the exhibition follows the exact chronology for the 83 images. Maybe is because there is virtually no text in the book, thus reducing the dichotomy between looking and reading. The sequence of the book has always puzzled me a bit.  They aren’t arranged chronologically, thematically, narratively or even with a clear sense of formal relationships.  In fact, as I have spent many, many hours removing traces of deteriorated adhesive from the spine edges of the pages, they often tend to get out of order.  Viewing the images out of order reinforces the impression that it is not in the sequencing that its power lies, but in the massing of the images coupled with a sense of disorder, that creates this powerful, poignant snapshot of America.

Gallery viewing is public, but viewing books generally takes place in private, with the reader able to choose the pace of their viewing.  Typical of a busy museum, especially when looking at smaller format images, I was forced to stand in a line and everyone tended to move along at the same rate.  If you got tired of looking at the image in front of you, you could look back at the previous one or ahead to the next. The book, however is laid out with one image on the recto, and a simple title, often nothing more than a place name, on the verso of the previous page.  Each image in the book is encountered in isolation, and is related to the previous one only by memory, not active viewing. The layout of the images mirrors the subject of the images as well– the often mentioned pervasive loneliness and sense of isolation that Frank documented.

One aspect of Frank’s work that came through more forcefully in the gallery setting was his use of reflections, shooting through curtains, windows, etc.  The fact that the photos were framed in glass, with its own reflections, and the verticality of the picture plane emphasized this.  I interpreted the photographs more like windows, rather than like portraits in the book, both because of their verticality and large size. Many were much larger  (some impressively large for 35mm)  than the reproductions in the book, and the size varied from image to image.  I suspect each photo was printed as large as he could, and they were printed at various times during the past decades.  The regular size of the images in the book, albeit with some variation in horizontal and vertical orientation, tends to reinforce the homogeneous nature of this tour through America. (4)

I am used to looking at this book through my “conservation eyes”.  When viewing the book during conservation treatment, I generally tend not to “look” at it as a whole, but only look at the small area of damage that I am treating.  Even when I sleep on it, or step back and try to assess the whole, the areas where I have devoted so much attention to continue to beckon. Sometimes, when I’m looking at art,  I catch myself looking at a repaired area of an object, or some damage, or how it is mounted, rather than trying to appreciate it as an artistic experience.  I think it is a bad habit, possibly dangerous, in the sense that it forces my perception onto very small details, possibly at the expense of a more holistic interpretation.    When I look at the book, memories of what I treated, what was repaired, etc. constantly resurface and interfere with the intent of the artist.

But after viewing the exhibition, the book form beckoned– this time a 2008 facsimile for sale in the  museum shop,  with sewn signatures, for only $39.95.

americans sewn


1. J. Hoberman has a solid review of the show in The Village Voice which places the book in the context of late 1950’s American culture.

2. Take a close look at open first edition displayed at the beginning of the show, in the middle of the case.  Notice that the top and bottom of the page displayed is detaching. Heads up to whoever is de-installing this case- close this book very, very carefully! The glue is already very brittle.

3.  I’m going to leave aside a discussion of the most obvious difference, the difference in the visual qualities of reproduction.  Gelatin silver photographs and offset printing look quite different!

4. Differences in  various editions of the book also change the reading. Towards the end of the show, there was a case containing three various editions of the book, all open to the same image to allow easy comparison. Needless to say, the print quality varied quite a bit, and these differences influence how the images are interpreted.

Expressions of Power: Reflections on Centrale Montemartini


What is going on here?   Why are these statues displayed in front of large industrial machinery?  What does it mean to display art in a factory, along with machines and tools? Is this merely a dramatic juxtaposition or are there deeper connections to be made?    Is this an example of bringing art to the masses?  Or is this a set for an unrealized Star Trek episode?

Pictured above is the Montemartini Thermoelectric Power Plant, located in Rome, Italy. In 1997, due to renovation at a number of the museums on the Capitoline Museums (Museo del Palasso dei Conservatori, Museuo Nuovo, Braccio Nuovo) many Roman artifacts were relocated to a then defunct power station that was built in 1912.  The temporary exhibition, originally titled The Machines and the Gods, proved to be so popular, the power station was made a permanent part of the Museum system and today houses many of its recent acquisitions.

Upon entering the building, the viewer is immediately plunged into sensory confusion– two fastidiously cleaned steam turbines (each roughly 25 meters long and 10 meters high)  are flanked by rows of Roman busts and sculptures.  A 20-Ton crane hangs over fragments of a Pediment from 179 BC.  Statues in the engine room keep a quiet watch on the non-functioning machinery.  The smell of the oil and grease permeates the air, so strongly, in fact as to give the viewer pause when gazing upon these white marble statures–as if one’s eyes alone could stain their surface.  Usually statues like these are encountered in lofty remove–the neutral white cube of museum space, reconstructed archaeological sites or in the pages of art books– here they are visiting us in perhaps the most prosaic of environments, a factory.


And the fact that the viewer is in a factory is never far from consciousness. It would not be out of place to expect to punch a timeclock when entering this museum.  But the time clock would not be for the visitors, but for these sculptures, forced to eternally  monitor these  machines, like a scene from an unwritten science fiction fairy tale.  Factories force us to think of time– of the assembly line, of mechanization, of time motion studies–while these statues embody the classic ideals of timelessness in art.

The silence in this factory is startling– there is no clanking of wrenches, no hissing of an air compressor, no humming of a motor —  just silence and stillness. Their massive presence and smell are the  only reminders of the billions and billions of kilowatts of electricity once generated here. The silence of this factory, of these quiet machines pairs remarkably well with the statues frozen in an often incomprehensible gesture.  Both are in some senses defunct.  The machines are no longer in operation, and the names and gestures associated with the statues are unknown to most modern viewers.  They are enshrined in this space, silent witnesses in this odd time capsule.

The statues and the machinery interact in unpredictable ways.  The parade of white, sometime armless, legless torsos against a backdrop of black machinery presents an interlocking dynamic that connects the crippled, nonfunctioning machines with the statues.  Are they are both deserving of sympathy, or even pity?  Or are these statues a factory owners vision of his workforce- mute, lifeless, headless in many cases, maimed– standing at eternal attention to the machines, yet not lifting a finger to do anything.   Perhaps these machines a concrete reminder that only when we are freed of our basic needs–such as energy– can we create art? Could these statues be regarded as ghosts of injured workers, condemed to constantly regard the place of their trauma?  Possibly the statues are warily watching the machines, puzzled by this 20th century behemoth.


Juxtapositions abound in this museum, and relentlessly  overturn conventional distinctions of aesthetics and meaning– suddenly the polished cast bronze wheel of a high pressure pipeline seems as interesting and important as a delicately carved marble crown.  The white surfaces of the marble leap out against the black boilers.  The curves of a human body paired with the linear placement of hex head bolts.  These dirty monsters of work almost touch these Roman ideals of beauty.

Fundamentally, both the sculptures and the machines in the factory,  are expressions of power.  The sculptures reflect the power of an individual to command or pay for a statue that will outlive them.  The machines reflect the power of their makers to  extend, increase and transcend our physical limitations, as well as originally creating electrical energy from diesel and steam.  These massive machines are allegoric  to  the work of an artist who extracts the essentials from reality in the act of creation.  Power and transcendence– perhaps the two of the most basic ingredients of Art?

Below, I am taking a picture of a large head, with an  engine behind.  I am dwarfed by the power and size of the machine, and have to look up to the multitude of statues as well. Machines are de facto public expressions of power, rated  in non-human terms of horsepower, in this case 7,500 of them.  Most of the statues in this museum were originally on public display.  Electricity itself can be considered a primary expression of power by the state- consider the philosophy of those “living off the grid” or who are Amish.


Visually, much of the joy of looking at tools or machines comes from trying to figure out how it works, or even more basically what the parts do, and how they fit into a whole.  (1) In some senses, the machines can be regarded as pure description– the parts essentially describe themselves and what they do– there is no narrative to explain them.  The statues, with their narrative symbolic meanings,  belong to the world of Art.  But in this context, as one views both of them together, they merge and overlap in intriguing ways.  A circle of bolts on a cylinder  possesses an unexpected harmony and grace.  Conversely, the clothing on the statues, detailed and realistic,  accurately describes the technology of the cloth and of clothing– the art moves a bit closer to our vernacular world, without diminishment, and the vernacular a bit closer to the realm of art.

And what could be more a product of vernacular culture than a tool?  Considering that they form a large percentage of extant artifacts from prehistory, it is surprisingly rare to see modern examples on display in museums. The tools in this museum are displayed as artifacts, impressive for their size and perhaps a reminder that it is the humans who have their hand on them, controlling and maintaining these collosal machines.  But they also belong to the past and are now entombed and only presenting their visual aspects.



One of the freizes in the museum also depicts the tools of the carpenters Guild who constructed the roof on the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter in the 6th century.   I imagine the figures were originally  using tools, although the evidence is now lost. On the upper left of this image there is the most graceful outside caliper I have ever seen, an unidentified tool (or a stool?), a hammer (or axe?), and a bowsaw.   There is a very long history of workers wanting to be pictured with their tools, again, they give the workers power in shaping matter, and can become symbols of the power, skill and knowledge that craftsmen posses.


Another visual link between the sculptures and the machinery are the mounts and support rods (visible in the photo above  under this marble fragment) which are echoed in the walkways, banisters, connecting rods and pipes that surround the machines.  Typically, the job of museum mounters is to provide support and protection by being visually unobstrusive- here, however, they form a link between the sculptures and machines.  While the rods and bolts support the sculptures, they contain the machinery, keeping it from exploding when it was in operation.

Both the factory  and the museum lie somewhat outside “real” life.  We are forced to check our baggage and leave it locked securely before we enter.  And the symbolic implications are the same- we pass through the door (sometimes in factory work changing our cloths, assuming a new identity) lock up our possessions which are stored under lock and key, which we wil retrieve when we leave. We often pay, or are paid to enter these spaces. In each, as a viewer or worker, there are certain social conventions most of us follow. This factory/museum questions some of those assumptions.  To enter each is to enter into a contract to explore the potential challanges that the overall experience raises, then, regretably, leave it behind when we leave.

But I am unwilling to mentally leave this factory, just yet.  Thinking about it allows me to explore the differences and similarities  between factory/ museum, art/ artifact/ tools, artwork/ factory-work,– and  many , many other inspiring and provocative aspects.  The curators and designers have brought two previously isolated aspects of human culture together, the machines and the gods, and each reveals something about the other in new and unexpected ways.



1.  I speculated on some of the ways tools impart meaning, and how that meaning is difficult to interpret visually  in Conservation and Tools: An Enquiry into Nature and Meaning., published in The Bonefolder, Vol. 1 No. 1, 2004.

Phonographs in a Museum

I often find the zombies with headphones on in museums rather annoying.  But I’m even more glad this idea below never took off.  I found this in Popular Science, April 1931.  Although this report pitches the idea as making it more convenient for museum visitors, most likely it is also a form of using automation for cutting staff costs.