Thanks to cellulose and tourists.

September 11, 2009

It’s great when you find something that is beautiful and also conveys a great amount of information.


This is not one of those circumstances.

But it’s Friday, and we’ve been proofing catalog records all day, and sometimes one just needs to gaze at something very beautiful.


These are photos of two pith books in the collection of the Penn Museum Archives, that we pull out for special visitors. The paper’s cells swell upon contact with the paint, making it appear that the paint is blossoming out of the paper.

These paintings were produced in China in the 19th century, to feed a tourist market for small, portable, and very “Oriental” souvenirs.

Ours came into the museum by way of the Education Department, which collected items from all over the world for the children to observe and touch. Given this history, it is not surprising that the bindings are falling apart, but very impressive how well-preserved the paintings are!  We have one album devoted to bugs and butterflies, and one showing Chinese “court” scenes.


It’s really impossible to convey how captivating these are. The images seem to float over the paper, and the colors are rich and full. For cheap-and-dirty souvenirs, these still were the work of great artists.

They don’t have much to do with the history of the Penn Museum. But I hope they’re inspiring, as you plan your weekend activities:


Further Reading:

Preserving Pith Paintings by By Terry Boone, at the Library of Congress:


Two collectors’ descriptions: