Tag Archives: book cradles

Exhibition Review: Armenia. Art, Objects, Body Parts, and Books

Armenia!“, now on view at the Met, is one of the largest Armenian art shows ever in North America, containing more than 140 works of art, objects, body parts (in reliquaries), and books. It is not only a great art exhibition, but a great show for bibliophiles: roughly half the items on view are books. The show spreads calmly over seven galleries, with no videos or recorded sounds playing, and ample space between the objects. Even though it was packed with viewers the Sunday afternoon I visited, there weren’t lines in front of any particular object. The minimal gallery introductions and short captions reinforced a direct engagement with the objects, rather than reading about them. Interspersing the books with other objects initiated a dialogue between them.

Gospel Book with Gilded-Silver Covers and Embroidered Pouch. J. P. Morgan MS M.621. I’ve never seen another binding that has just one spine strap, like this one. Did it serve as a means of attachment to something else?

The craft similarities between reliquaries and full-metal books were hard to miss. For example, the 17th century gilded silver covers on the Gospel Book above, and the Hand Reliquary of Saint Abulmuse (L.1988.63) have a very similar construction. The stunning covers of both signal their importance as objects of veneration, and at the same time hide their inner contents. The insides of these objects are deeply personal, and almost at odds with the elaborately decorated exterior.  The reliquary houses body parts of someone, the book houses the thoughts of someone. Is there an object that does both?

Expositionitis. n. [ek-spuh-zish-uhn-ahy-tis] : A horrible desease that temporarily blinds museum professionals to the actual objects in an exhibition. Instead, the afflicted spend all their time looking at a crooked frame, an over cut mat, how a particular object was repaired or strapped, prominent shadows, a dust bunny in the corner of a case, etc…  “I didn’t even notice the carved ivory elephant in the corner, my expositionitis was so bad!”

I must have had a mild attack, since I am still thinking about a number of books open to a full 180 degrees, which can cause stress to the binding. A more restricted opening is generally better, and it is still relatively easy to view a two page spread. It also sets a poor precedent for the display of books in such a pre-eminant institution.

Alexander Romance, Sulu Manastir, 1544. Copied and illuminated by Zak’ariay of Gnunik’; d. 1576. John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, UK. Kasemake cradle by Mark Furness.

Mark Furness, Senior Conservator at the University of Manchester, designed and made an interesting cradle. He and Elaine Sheldon have been working for a number of years on museum board cradles cut on a Kasemake boxmaking machine. I like the softness of museum board when making contact with leather. Some might find the aesthetics slightly distracting, though I’m sure this is something that is evolving. Mark also did a great job of strapping: note the zero textblock sag. An advantage is it ships completely flat for easy transport, and assembles without any adhesives. This version is quite strong and easily supports a heavy parchment textblook/ wooden board book easily. These cradles are inexpensive and easy to recycle.

I’m glad to see someone experimenting with something other than acrylic. Acrylic is so hard and flat, it rarely conforms closely with the undulations of hand made book boards and hand pared leather, let alone metal furniture. This can result in the weight of a book being concentrated in a few small areas.

Grakal, Liturgical Book Stand , 1272 with modern additions. History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan (171).

The most interesting cradle, technically a book stand, was this 13th century grakal, a liturgical book stand. Although it is similar to an Islamic rehal, there are important differences. A traditional rehal is cut from a single piece of wood. The grakel was made of two seporate pieces. How they hinge together is also quite different.

A modern rehal, which I purchased in Turkey, 2009. This is one plank that has been partially cut into two.

To make a rehal, holes are drilled, as you can see in the image below. Then a thin sawblade, like a coping or turning saw, is inserted and the joints cut, and the plank cut in two. The ways a book sits in a rehal or grakal are also quite different. A book in a rehal sits in this cut out hinge, which also flattens out, creating a space for the spine. A book in a grakal sits on top of the leather sling, and has a metal rod that the two sides hinge from. Both, however, are lightweight, collapsable, portable, and support a book in use.

Detail of the hinge of a modern rehal, which I purchased in Turkey, 2009. A small saw blade was inserted into the drilled holes to begin the cuts. Making a model of one of these is on my to do list.

Detail of hinge area of the Grakal. Note the seam from the two pieces of wood.

I’m almost certain the top and bottom parts of this grakal are made from separate pieces of wood and glued together. The book rests on a leather top piece which lessens the stress on the hinge. Given the fact it has held up for nine centuries, the construction is more than adequate!

Gospel Book, Monastery of Manuk Surb Nshan, K’ajberunik’, 1386. J. Paul Getty Museum (MS Ludwig II 6).

My favorite piece in the show is this page from a Gospel Book, 1386. On the top are two scribes, and under them are two students burnishing the paper in preparation for writing, with extremely tall burnishers. Stylistically, they look quite similar to smaller, one handed Western glass mullers. The scribe mentions, in the text, he wanted to thank the students  (“his angels”) for this generally thankless, but important task. Paper was burnished to make it smoother for painting and writing on, and more parchment-like in appearance.

The last gallery of the show included a number of highly skilled manuscripts made in the 17th century. It surprised me to see the skilled transmission of craft skills persisting so late into what we in the West consider print culture. One of the primary takeaways from the show was how Armenia does not fit neatly into the Eastern-Western culture divisions many of us still regularly invoke, as well as challenging our notion of when Medieval culture ended.

If you can’t make it to the show, which closes January 13, 2019, the catalog is very informative, with all 143 objects described in text and photographs, and several longer essays. NY TImes review of Armenia!

A Drop Spine Cradle Box

Peter Waters, in the introduction to “Boxes for the Protection of Rare Books: Their Design and Construction” established seven basic precepts for designing a protective enclosure in 1982.  It is an excellent analysis of what a good book box should be, and is worth quoting in entirety:

“1. A good box should place the closed volume under light pressure so that is is unlikely to expand, become distorted, or shift position if the box is shaken or dropped.

2. The box should be strongly constructed so that if it sustains a blow any damage to the volume within will be minimized. (Shipping boxes need to be stronger and are not considered here.)

3. Materials used for making boxes should be of the highest permanence and durability, with appearance playing a lesser role than it would in the design of “presentation” boxes.

4. As far as possible, a book box, when assembled and covered, should be a single unit.  Telescopic designs, for example, or boxes with inner sleeves and separate covers can confuse a user who must return each of several visually identical volumes to its own box.

5. The design and location of the label on a closed box should indicate clearly whether it should be shelved vertically or horizontally and how it should be opened. The method of opening and closing a box should always be simple and obvious.  Inadequate directions for opening are potential sources of damage to the book.

6. When possible, a book box should be designed so that the user must remove it from the shelf and place it on a table to open it and must remove the volume with both hands.  A slip case or telescopic case tempts a user to hold it with one hand while removing or replacing the volume with the other hand, which is potentially harmful to the book.

7. With few exceptions, a box design should restrain a user from opening the volume within the box.”

I would add two additional guidelines:

8.  It should be cost effective and simple to construct.

9. Ideally, there should be no abrasion when removing or replacing the book  in the box.  Practically, this is often impossible.

cradle1

Fig 1: A drop spine box with an integral cradle.

With these precepts in mind, I designed a box with an integral cradle. For collectors who read their books (not unheard of!), it is often ideal; most don’t want the hassle of storing or locating rare book room style wedges, and some open their books inside drop spine boxes anyway.  This cradle could also be useful for book artists that want some control over how their books are displayed in an exhibition. In certain circumstances, it might even be useful in an institutional setting.  Dedicated cradles with variable degrees of opening are optimum for consultation and display, but sometimes this is not possible.

I based this box/cradle on one  I saw in  Montefiascone, Italy, this past summer and it was made by Nicholas Hadgraft. His version used velcro to attach the left wedge into the outer tray, but after some experimentation I changed this.  The basic idea, of hinging the cradle platform near the spine was his, I think.  I’ve also heard about a version that automatically raises the cradle, but haven’t seen one yet– I’d be happy to add an image or diagram to this post if anyone has one to share. After thinking, experimenting and making various models, I reached the point where further simplifications created more complications.  I’m sure there are many variations and hope there are potential improvements.

diagram1

Fig 2: Diagram of the layout for a wedge.

The construction is easy and straightforward.  Basically, the two wedges are made, attached together,  then measured with the book to determine the dimensions of the inner tray. After that, the box is constructed as usual.  The construction of drop spine boxes is well documented, so there is no reason to repeat it here.

First, determine the angle of the desired opening for the book.  Then cut the three pieces of board- a spacer, the cradle platform and the upright.  The width of the upright will determine the angle of the cradle. A hinge spacing of four board thicknesses worked well with Iris cloth, but a thicker cloth might need additional space.  When measuring the book, I feel a somewhat “loose” box prevents abrasion of the book edges, when inserting and removing the book, which I feel causes more damage than if the book moves a few mm inside the box. About  one centimeter is a reasonable gap between the spacer and the upright when it is folded flat– it allows for some flexibility in construction, yet adequately supports the book when it is stored.  Then the three pieces are covered like a case binding, and lined.

diagram3

Fig. 3: End view of the book and two wedges, ready to be measured for the tray.

Another important consideration is to add about one spine thickness to the height of the upright in the outer tray, in order to keep the overall angle of each wedge roughly similar to each other. Since the book could eventually be used in a wide variety of page openings, it seemed reasonable to keep the angle of the uprights roughly even.

The wedges were attached to each other by a double layer of book cloth, glued back to back. A variety of materials seem to work for  lining the platform depending on the fragility of the book covering material– I’ve used paper, cloth, volara and polyester felt.  The trays need to be lined before they are measured with the book. It is possible to construct the wedges and spine piece from one piece of cloth, but measuring for a proper fit is fairly difficult and more time consuming, and then the spacers need to be made from separate pieces of cloth.

Note that on the right side wedge, the spacer is glued to the bottom on the inner tray.  This allows the wedge to open, and his prevents the cradle from shifting and collapsing when it is open.  The spacer on the left wedge is glued to the bottom of the cradle platform. This allows it to open independently from the drop spine box, consequently the spine width is closer to the ideal than if the wedges are hinged to the trays.

cradle-in box

Fig. 4: View of the cradle when opening the box.

I try to make the cradle platform fit fairly tight in the inner tray, so that its friction can be used to create slight compression on the book.

One potential drawback is that it effectively doubles the thickness of a standard drop spine box, adding an additional 4 board thicknesses, plus lining materials, but presumably this is more of a concern for institutional, verses private collections.

cradle-first flap

Fig. 5: The box and cradle open, but the uprights not yet raised.

The location of the pull ribbon is quite important, and unfortunately there is no ideal solution.  If it is placed about halfway up in the height, it makes it easy to pull it to 0pen the upright.  But in this position, it can slip under the platform when closed.  If the ribbon slips under the right wedge, it can be very difficult to retrieve (DAMHIKT). For now, locating this closer to the top, or to keep it from slipping by sewing through the hinge, as illustrated here,  seem the best solution.

I trust that Peter Waters would have considered this box as an “exception” to his rule #7, otherwise I plead guilty as charged.

cradle

Fig 6: Competed box with integral cradle in position.