Exhibition Review: Open Books Exhibition and Publication

I have been searching long and hard for an exhibition about books (since this is what my final project is about).  It is actually a difficult subject to find an exhibition on since unlike a painting, sculpture, or photograph, the essence of a book seems to change once you turn it into an object to contemplate in an exhibit.  The materiality of the physical object is brought to the forefront, though perhaps at the expense of the text where the meaning of a book is traditionally placed.

This is why I found the exhibit Open Books: Exhibition and Publication so interesting.  The curators of the program, Sophie DeMay and Charlotte Cheetham along with artists Fay Nicolson and Oliver Smith,  write:

How do you exhibit it [a book]? Exploring the use of the book as the exhibited material, in the ‘public’ space, rather than in a more private sphere, implies a shift, a transformation of its content. If books are being exhibited as objects, then, necessarily, one must wonder about their first purpose: to be read. How do you show and experience them within that particular context?

The Open Books exhibit straddles the line between displaying books as objects while still placing an emphasis on the importance of the text. The blog about the exhibit can be found here:


Don’t be scared because the first page is all in French.  The exhibit has traveled and it was apparently last held somewhere in France.  Older blog pages are in English.  The exhibit was first displayed at the Royal College of Art in London from Feb. 21-27, 2011.  The structure of the exhibit is a little complicated and best explained by the following diagram:

In short: there is an exhibition wall of books (all of which have books as their subject matter). Visitors to the exhibit were asked to browse any book on the wall and mark one page and then return the book to the wall.  All the pages that were marked in a day were photocopied and then bound into a new book which was then also placed on the exhibit wall.  In essence, a new book with content aggregated from all that days visitors was created and added to the exhibit each day.

Here is a photo of the exhibit wall at the Royal College of Art:



 Here is a photo from the French version of the exhibition:


 Here are photos of people attending the exhibit:

And more:

This exhibit is successful in bringing the private act of reading into the public space. I love the photographs (above) of the visitors engaged with both the texts and each other. Books are not “dead objects,” the curators write, but are living objects.  This exhibit manages to both display books as material objects and retain that life.  It finds a way to share the experience of reading with others. 

I think this kind of sharing is similar to the kind of sharing that happens in newtorked environments like Facebook, Tumblr, or Pinterest, where people can blog or post about what interests them.  In the Open Books exhibit, the books that are created each day can be seen as that days “posts” of content that strike each visitor.  This exhibit also reflects the modern trend towards “self-curation.” The visitors to the Open Books exhibit act as curators by choosing which pages will go into the daily publication.

That said, there are some limitations to the exhibit. The rationale for marking a page was left to the discretion of the visitors.  I think it would have been more interesting if the reason for choosing a page was clear.  Perhaps visitors could have been asked to mark a page that highlighted for them the value of a book as a physical object? I also think that limiting the subject matter of the exhibit to books about books was a little too self-reflexive. That narrow focus hardly captures the full experience of reading and if we are to see the exhibition as a chance to allow people to share and\or self-curate their own interests then it does not make sense to have the option of books to read be so limited in focus.  

It is an interesting experiment, though.  In a final bit of self-reflexiveness, a book was created at the end of the exhibition which included essays related to the exhibition as well as the pages people marked during the run of the show. The exhibition catalog has become a staple of the modern day museum show as an object people can take home as a physical reminder of the experience.  The Open Books Exhibition book takes it a step further by allowing the visitor to control some of the content that ends up in the final exhibition catalog.


 All images for this review came from the Open Books Tumblr: http://open-books.tumblr.com/

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