Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Weekday Wanderings - The Morgan Library & Museum

Two Elephants by Ibn Bakhtīshū

One of the blessings of having a partner who works at a museum is that sometimes I get to see amazing museum things. Yesterday was one of those days. Roger and his coworkers took a few of their interns on a field trip to the Morgan Library & Museum, and because I work across the street and one of the interns couldn't make it, I got to accompany their little group during my lunch break.

William M. Voelkle, the curator and department head of Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts there gave an incredible presentation about the history of the manuscript, from papyrus scrolls to vellum codexes. To illustrate the talk, he brought us an incredible number of illuminated manuscripts, each of which was just gorgeous. He explained why fancy books now have ridges in their spines (when books were still sewn together, the leather bindings bumped over their stitches) and said that the most beautiful manuscripts, the ones with jewels in the front, were kept in the treasury of their monastery, and weren't actually read. All books were items of enormous value, but the inlaid ones were especially valuable, of course.

We saw an illuminated manuscript that was only half-finished, which showed us the incredibly painstaking process of hand lettering and painting each page, and then Voelkle explained how each book was bound. It was incredible seeing the logic to the different pages, even if you couldn't tell from just looking at it right away.

My very favorite piece, though, and the one we spent the most time on, was The Benefits of Animals, a Persian book by Ibn Bakhtīshū from the 14th century. It's part of their Islamic collection, and absolutely stunning. The book talks about the natural history of animals and the illustrations of animals are just gorgeous. (There are also some imposter drawings of humans, that were added in the 19th century to make it more interesting to potential buyers.) The elephants above are my favorite piece from the whole book (someone get me a print!), but all of the illustrations are incredible, so take a look through the pages if you have a chance. There is also a great pair of mountain goats and some beautiful deer.

As a writer and someone who works in textbooks, I am constantly thinking of the next thing for the book. Yesterday afternoon, I was lucky enough to spend some time thinking about the past of the book, and what incredible objects they really are. I do think that as electronic media continues to grow, print books will slowly move back toward their original state as art objects, and I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. It's humbling to consider the longevity of these books in a world of immediate consumption, and I can't think of a better way to have spent my time yesterday. Thanks to the Morgan for hosting us and giving me such a great education in manuscripts!

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