by Nicoline Meyer (MA, 2018)
Located in the heart of San Francisco’s cultural center, The American Bookbinders Museum (ABM) is dedicated to the craft and process of bookbinding, as well as the lives of bookbinders, and is the only museum of its type in North America. The ABM’s collection features historic bookbinding tools and machinery, books bound in representative binding styles, and ephemera relating to binding in San Francisco and the United States.
As a self-taught bookbinder, I was delighted to be their Collections and Exhibits intern for Summer 2018, bringing my practical bookbinding skills and enthusiasm for the craft to the on-going projects at the museum, while honing the skills I learned during my first year in USF’s graduate museum studies program. I was then even more delighted to be offered a paid position with the Museum!
My first task this summer was to help complete and install the temporary exhibit, “The Joy of Cookbooks” (open through August 25th), an ode to the effects of time, the kitchen, and the cook on the physical objects of cookbooks. The ABM partnered with Omnivore Books, a local store dedicated to books on food, to highlight how cookbooks have changed, reflecting the time period and culture in which they were created. The exhibit opened on June 23rd, a rare sunny summer day in San Francisco, to delighted comments on old recipes (such as “To Ice Cream”) and fond reminisces of family cookbooks handed down from mothers and grandmothers.
With the Cookbooks exhibit set up, attentions turned towards finishing the development of our “Signature Tour,” the first step of a planned expansion in self-guided tour offerings, including audio, visual, and print. While the structure was already set when I joined the ABM for my internship (the tour takes the form of a parent sheet, folded into an octavo–or 16 page–signature).
What was not set in stone, however, was how we were going to explain the processes required to make hand- and machine-bound books. After some debate and collective brainstorming, we settled on a first person narrative of the process, placing the visitor in the role of a bookbinder before and during the Industrial Revolution and walking them through each step required to completely bind a book. Each step is marked by a particular tool or machine that was used, and wherever possible, we encourage the visitor to actually engage with the object: using a bone folder to fold a parent sheet, feeling the texture and tension of the linen cords on a sewing frame, and examine the differences between machine sewn and hand sewn books.
Once the narrative was constructed and the layout was finalized, we set up the floor so visitors can guide themselves to the objects highlighted in the tour. Each stop is marked by a foam core number and a smaller sign indicating the type of process carried out by that machine or tool. Additional objects and materials are arranged in display cases to provide more information and examples of techniques explained in the tour. After a beta period to receive feedback on how people experienced the Signature Tour, the tour went live on August 1st, 2018.
Anita Engles, the Executive Director, has the following to say about the development of the self-guided tour:
“Adding self-guided tours to ABM’s offering is a huge milestone in the on-going development and curation of the museum’s permanent collection. Nicoline’s bookbinding experience and training in museum collections was a terrific help to us in making this vision a reality.”
This internship was an incredible experience for me! It deepened my appreciation for the craft of bookbinding. Each day presented more opportunities to” learn how capable and flexible small museums can be.
All photographs courtesy of Nicoline Meyer.
To learn more about University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program, click here.