The Hippo


Oct 15, 2019








Check out “Cover Story: The Art of Book Binding”

Where: Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester
When: On view through Feb. 19
Contact: 669-6144,

Book covers
Go on, judge them

By Kelly Sennott

You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but people do it anyway.

“People really care about what the book looks like,” said Meghan Petersen, Currier Museum librarian and archivist at the museum’s latest library focus installation, “Cover Story: The Art of Book Binding.”
The show, on view through Feb. 19, is located down the stairs, after you walk through the front doors, and it’s displayed in cases and along the walls. It contains 33 books from the Currier’s rare books collection (which totals about 17,000 titles) from the years 1700 to 2015, all of which feature interesting or unusual bindings — metal bindings, accordion bindings, string binding, wooden box bindings, etc.
“Part of the goal with this exhibition series is to let people know, we do have this component to the collection,” Petersen said. “And you can either come in during open hours, or you can schedule an appointment with me and see them in person, which is great because you actually get to touch the books.”
Another goal was to get people to think of the book as an object and highlight its physicality. How do a binding and a book’s physical components affect your reading experience?
“I think there are a lot of conversations right now around e-books. People start to wonder, what actually is a book?” Petersen said. “We started [working on the show] about 10 months ago. We just started noticing how many beautiful books we have that sort of demonstrated these different moments in book design and book history.”
Petersen is the Currier’s only librarian and archivist, and in addition, she generates programming on the bottom floor, next to the Currier’s library. She’s been at the job five years this February, and unlike past Currier librarian staff, her background is not in art research, but as an archivist, studying the history of the book. A lot of this exhibition came from a project she’s working on cataloguing the backlog of the museum’s collection.
“I think a lot of what we’re trying to do is take advantage of the collections that we have. It’s a very respectable collection,” she said. “And as we looked and explored these books, they demonstrate some of the most elaborate types of book design.”
Part of her job has also been to determine why the museum even has some of these titles. For most, it’s obvious; they’re books showcasing famous artists, famous photographers, or they’re titles by famous authors with equally famous illustrators. It was hard to determine the significance of other titles, like Always Murder a Friend by Margaret Scherf.
“This was definitely one of those question marks. Why do we have this book? But on closer inspection, it turns out this book cover, we’re quite sure, was designed by one of our former directors, Charles Buckley,” Petersen said.
Buckley served as Currier Museum of Art director from 1955 to 1964, and alongside the book cover and wall text information are a handful of his lithographs. 
Another text, a collection of poetry by William Wordsworth, is tree calf-bound, a late 18th-century technique in which leather is stained to produce a dark tree-like pattern.
“It’s hard to execute, and very hard to do. The person that did that would have been studying for decades,” Petersen said.
Some book owners would adopt a way of binding all their books alike for fine shelf aesthetic, and many authors — the more famous ones — had multiple book jackets meant to appeal to mass consumers, like Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck, illustrated by Robert Jonas. Still others on display are exquisite, illustrated copies, like Moby Dick by Herman Melville, with illustrations by Rockwell Kent.
“I often think about that moment when Oprah Winfrey wanted to include All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy [in her book club]. I think for him, it changes the reception of the book if it has Oprah’s book club’s label on it,” she said. 
The largest book of the lot is a bible, more than three times the size of any other on display, complete with metal locks.
“When a book is large vs. small like this, what’s your impression of the book? When it has locks, does it intimidate you?” Petersen said.
Petersen said she’s been working more with curators to find ways for the collection to help tell richer stories for the art shows upstairs. Her next project is the focus exhibition, “Shakespeare’s Potions,” to go along with the writer’s “First Folio” show in April.
Unlike the rest of the museum’s materials, the books you can touch.
“These books have been crafted and made by makers and artists, and this is one place in the collection where you can sit with a rare book in your hand and touch it and feel it and smell it. And that’s kind of an exciting opportunity,” she said. 

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