Sunday, November 11, 2012

Can paper survive the digital age?

Money, laws, tickets, newspapers, not to mention its many uses in art … despite the digital revolution, our world is still built on paper. Ian Sansom reflects on an enduring addiction to the white stuff

Martin Creed's crushed paper
Still in the age of paper … detail of Martin Creed's Work No 88, A Sheet of A4 Paper, Crumpled Up Into a Ball. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and Hauser and Wirth

I want to make a modest proposal. I want to propose the foundation of a National Paper Museum. It's a back-of-the-envelope notion, a paper-fed pipe-dream. But it's not impossible. Museums are made of paper anyway, founded on blueprints and letters to the Times, and fuelled by ancient documents and handwritten catalogue entries. In the mid-19th century, Richard Owen, superintendent of natural history at the British Museum, decided that his area of specialisation needed its own space, and so he set about making his argument – on paper, in letters and in campaigns.

In 1858, more than 100 naturalists signed a letter to the chancellor of the exchequer, complaining about the display of natural history in the British Museum. Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin put together a petition. Owen published a booklet, On the Extent and Aims of a National Museum of Natural History. Money was raised. A competition was announced for the building of a new museum. Plans were submitted. Francis Fowke won the contest, on the strength of his perspective drawing. Interiors were sketched and designed. Plans became reality, and the new British Museum (Natural History) – what we know now simply as the Natural History Museum, one of the jewels in the crown of Albertopolis – finally opened to the public on Easter Monday 1881. We have a Science Museum, and a museum of the decorative arts. We have galleries aplenty and exhibitions everywhere. But we lack a national monument to the stuff that's made it all possible.

Civilisation is built on paper. Paper money has made our economies. Paper maps divided our land. Paper laws propped up our governments, and paper books helped shape our minds. Despite the obvious encroachments of the digital, we all still use so much paper to note, to register, to measure, to account for, to classify, authorise, endorse and generally to tot up, gee up and make good our lives that it would be a Joycean undertaking to provide a full history of all the paper in just one life on one day, never mind in one city on one day, or in the life of one nation. Fortunate for us, then, that Joyce has already undertaken it: Ulysses, one of the great constructions of the human imagination, is nothing if not a vast paper palace, made up of bits of posters, pamphlets, sandwich boards and boot blacking ads. Leopold Bloom himself is an advertising canvasser, soliciting ads for the Dublin paper the Freeman, and the novel is literally composed from scraps. "I make notes on the backs of advertisements," Joyce told a friend in 1917. He also made much use of waistcoast-pocket-sized pieces of paper, large enough to make multiple memos-to-self about Epps Cocoa, Bushmill's whiskey, Guinness, Ginger Ale, Pear's soap and Plumtree's potted meat, all of which feature largely and exuberantly throughout the novel. In one startling passage Bloom imagines an innovative travelling stationery advertisement, "a transparent show cart with two smart girls sitting inside writing letters, copybooks, envelopes, blotting paper. I bet that would have caught on."

Full piece at The Guardian

This timely and reflective, handsome small hardback book is released in NZ this month by Harper Collins - NZ rrp $29.99.  I am half way through it and finding it most interesting. 

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