Pop Goes The Museum


As a designer at the American Museum of Natural History, I often find myself walking the storied halls and people watching. One of the central questions that runs through my head (other than “why would anyone use an iPad to take photos?”) is about the visitor experience:

What exactly is a meaningful interaction in a museum exhibition space?

It’s a tough question that a lot of folks have considered, researched, theorized, surveyed, and tested. There are entire publications and white papers and conferences dedicated to tackling just what is necessary to create a richly engaging, entertaining, and inspiring learning opportunity in an exhibit that invites dialogue, hands-on participation, and the ever-elusive feedback loop.

So I’ve decided to step into the fray and contribute my voice to this esoteric, somewhat technical, and interesting question. After all, it’s my responsibility as an artist to look at the world around me with new eyes. Rebecca Kamen, a sculptor and lecturer at Rhode Island School of Design, recently explained this unique role, identifying artists as “universal investigators who look at everything from different angles, rather than going down a straight path. That’s when discovery happens.”

Instead of tackling this immensity in one fell swoop, I’m going to take Ms. Kamen’s words to heart and unpack the idea over time, post by post. For starters let’s consider, dear reader, that perhaps there are opportunities to glean from the rich and rewarding moments found in completely different, non-museum environments and apply them to a exhibition interaction.

“A Winter’s Tale” by Robert Sabuda (2005).

“A Winter’s Tale” by Robert Sabuda (2005).

Exhibit A: the humble pop-up book.

I grew up unfolding these amazing treasures of incredible paper engineering. Each colorful page yielded new surprises, delighting my senses and letting my imagination run with abandon into each intricate folding wonder. They took a place of honor on my bookshelf, each handled with the care of a conservator’s ancient artifact. (My parents instilled me with a desire to preserve these books so they might be enjoyed for years to come.)

The first true pop-up or “automatic” books started in the 19th century in Britain and German (although some scholarly publications included moveable parts as far back as 1240 AD), and designed with children in mind. But in 1929, Louis Giraud and Theodore Brown introduced an annual series of stories and nursery rhymes that featured gorgeous illustrations that burst from the page, and gained a huge popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. (Amazingly the books were assembled by hand in the back of a delivery truck outside the patron’s home and delivered to their front door!)

Since then, pop-up books have dominated the children’s book market and found their way into high-end art and popular culture in topics as varied as Legos, Alfred Hitchcock, and Star Wars. I have a particular affinity for Robert Sabuda’s award-winning pop-up books: the clean lines, deceivingly simple engineering, and bright cascade of color make all of his pop-up creations a joy to experience.

If you’ve ever attempted to fold origami, create a hand puppet, or assemble IKEA furniture, you already have some sense of the intricate, delicate skill involved in pop-up books. The folds, tucks, slides, springs, and anchors must be precise for every page to work properly and smoothly, even under the most strenuous repeat actions. Illustrator, engineer, and author must collaborate in concert to breathe three-dimensional life into each 2-D idea. Renowned paper engineer Andrew Baron explains the process:

“Many people don’t realize that someone actually has to work out every little fold and tuck and all of the elaborate “mechanics” that go into every pop-up book… No matter how complicated an action or structure appears to be, every pop-up book is entirely created from just a basic assortment of paper folds and devices, creatively combined in various imaginative ways to capture the spirit of a particular piece of art or composition.”

From story conception and engineering genius to digitally printed and die-cut sheets that are hand assembled by specialized manufacturers, the concept of a pop-up book is an excellent example of producing interactive materials for a large audience. So you might be wondering, how on earth does this relate to a museum exhibition?

The “Enchanted Book” interactive display in the American Museum of Natural History’s 2013 exhibition “The Power of Poison” comes to life when you turn a page.

The “Enchanted Book” interactive display in the American Museum of Natural History’s 2013 exhibition “The Power of Poison” comes to life when you turn a page.


Interaction in an exhibition space can follow a similar trajectory to setup opportunities to surprise, intrigue, and delight. Here are a few of my observations about this comparison between pop-up books and museum exhibition interactions:

  • A well engineered hands-on element in a museum exhibit doesn’t necessarily need to be the latest cutting-edge technology. It can be decidedly low-tech and still create a memorable moment, even if it’s only simple on the surface and has complicated mechanics “under the hood.”
  • The beauty of folded paper mechanics is the economy of words and information that can be displayed at a given time. Likewise, exhibits can tease out and layer together images, text, and media to unveil the grander idea in smaller steps, fold by carefully placed fold.
  • The tactile nature of a pop-up book gives the reader a chance to watch each page transform from a flat surface to a lively shape that can be explored and investigated (“how does that thing work?”). This hands-on evolutionary process is powerful and has many learning applications.
  • The transformation of a static museum element into a dynamic one can be far more interesting than a classic “hide-and-seek” mechanism, where a question is presented on a wooden panel and the user lifts, slides, or swivels the panel out of the way to reveal the answer. While those are considered “true” pop-ups, there is an exciting opportunity to make the resulting action far more elaborate, detailed, and wonderful. Picture yourself being presented with a question like “how does blood pump through the body?” and opening a drawer or shadow box that not only shows you the anatomy of the circulatory system, but also animates the motion of red blood cells in three-dimensional splendor.
  • The element of surprise plays a huge part in building suspense and delight. Imagine a lovingly illustrated “book of spells” that draws itself before your very eyes, as if by the magic from Harry Potter, and allows you to touch the pages themselves to make things change. Not only does it make for a rich experience for yourself, but allow prompts you to want to share this interaction with those around you.

How could the lessons of a humble pop-up book find their way into a richly wonderful museum exhibition? What else can speak into meaningful interactions in a learning and social sphere like a museum? There are a lot of ideas to unpack here! I have a big list of possibilities to consider in future posts: pottery classes, online signup wizards, Mini Coopers, choose-your-own-adventure theatrical experiences, Siri, restaurant queue buzzers, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and more.

Armistead Booker

Brooklyn, NY

I’m a visual storyteller, nonprofit champion, moonlighting superhero, proud father, and a great listener.