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New Exhibit Proves Pen Is Mighty Beautiful


Turkish Penholder and Reed Pen (18th century), gilt metal set with rubies (or spinels) and emeralds. Courtesy the Walters Art Museum.

Until relatively recently, reading and writing were the pastimes of the privileged elite (or religiously employed), and the tools of literacy were symbols of power, wealth and worldliness. Now at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, an exhibit called “Art of the Writing Instrument from Paris to Persia” looks at the pretty pens and other tools that stood as status symbols for their owners or helped turn the act of writing into a gracious art.

Art Beat talked to Amy Landau, associate curator for Islamic Art and Manuscripts, about the Walters’ collection of luxurious writing implements and how today’s digital writing tools stack up:

What was the inspiration for this exhibit?

The impetus for “Art of the Writing Instrument from Paris to Persia” was to highlight a theme related to writing, as this show is staged in our gallery dedicated to manuscripts and rare books. There was also the desire to draw upon the Walters’ outstanding collections of Asian, Middle Eastern and European art. Ingenious design, precious materials and the social significance of the writing implements draw together diverse cultures across this geographical spread.

How did the writing implement itself become a luxury item or a work of art?

This exhibition concentrates on writing instruments from the 17th to the 19th century. These objects were emblems of education, refinement and political power, and they have been collected, gifted, worn or depicted alongside their owners for centuries. They were often fashioned from costly and exotic materials, including mother-of-pearl, lacquer, tortoiseshell, gold and silver. Such writing implements, like other luxury objects, were associated with high social status.

Amy Landau describes some of the objects in “Art of the Writing Instrument.” Click to enlarge.

Do all of the items come from your museum’s collection?

All the exhibited works were drawn from the Walters collection. In fact, the majority of objects on view were in storage. In the present economic situation, museums are concentrating on defining innovative shows based on their own holdings for their audiences. The Walters staff is particularly good at this. We also have the advantage of working with a truly exceptional collection that is encyclopedic in nature.

Is there any modern day equivalent to the exquisite items in the exhibit? Are our iPads and laptops the natural progression?

Just like our iPads and iPhones, many of the objects on view were constructed with a view to delighting the user, either through the level of comfort in the hand or by technological innovation. Regarding design and technology, perhaps our smart phones and laptops used for means of communication like texting and emailing are a natural progression.

However, our modern day tools emphasize speed in communication; whereas many of the historic objects on view underscore contemplation and enjoyment of the act and processes of writing. Let’s face it, no one wants to write a poem, love letter or diplomatic correspondence on the keyboard of a smart phone! Texting, email and social networking with their abbreviated forms, such as emoticons, have taken the place of thoughtful letter writing for many.

The personal nature of one’s handwriting has surely been lost with our [technology] and laptops. Although this might return as we increase our technical sophistication to somehow reproduce expressions of individuality such as handwriting, calligraphy and variously colored inks beyond picking from a scroll down menu of fonts and colors.

In the show, we have a comment book for our visitors to write their thoughts about the ways human communication has evolved over time and to reflect on the value of the written word and letter writing in communication today. So I’ll end here with a few visitor comments:

“Last Christmas, I wrote a letter to friends who were far away. Sending and receiving hand written letters made me realize how precious human relationships are [….]”

“The way we will be remembered is by what we leave behind. You can’t leave behind a text because Sprint will cut off your phone and all your texts and emails– write a letter because Sprint can’t take that away!”

“I wish people still wrote love letters. Now that would be an amazing gift to get.”

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