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Perspectives Materials

Immaterial: Paper

Get a handle on palm-sized ephemera in The Met collection.

May 25, 2022

Detail of an ink and watercolor painting on paper with plants, leaves, and other organic elements

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Read full transcript with artworks here


Chisels and stones aside, for much of history, information was held in memory, shared orally through stories handed down from speaker to speaker. It wasn’t until the invention of paper—something we think of today as readily available—that communication and expression became easily recorded. First documented in China in the second century BC, this new technology spread to India, the Middle East, and into Europe, allowing knowledge, thoughts and images to be transported throughout the globe and across time. But the history of paper was not nearly so democratic, because technology adoption never really is.

Paper holds meaning. It is a depository of so much that we value and cherish. For many of us, our first creative expressions were recorded with crayons on paper. This was long before we discovered the value of money, the significance of a marriage certificate, or the joy of getting lost in the pages of a book. With paper we can write, draw, paint, print, collage, rip, fold, bend, stack, pulp, photograph, communicate, mass-produce, and more.

Immaterial: Paper dives deep into The Met’s paper collection. In the Department of Drawings and Prints, we explore the significance of ephemera: baseball cards, diaries, and anything that the Museum collects which wasn’t originally intended to be a work of art. The Met’s ephemera curator Allison Rudnick explains why these treasures need to be preserved and tells us about some of her favorite objects in the collection. We meet writer, storyteller, and activist Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed, who tells us about the comic book collections she wishes her family could have brought with them when they immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in the 1970s, and how she used paper ephemera to share her sense of humor with America’s Muslim community. Paper conservator Rachel Mustalish explains how she and her colleagues protect paper objects, from giving water baths to Dürer prints to halting the decay of a 1937 animation cel from Disney’s Snow White. Finally, ephemera historian and Met volunteer Nancy Rosin explains the real value of our messages of love, the valentine.

Paper is thin, it’s light, and—if it’s kept in the right conditions—it can last for a very, very long time. That’s important, because paper not only holds our memories of things past; the things we treasure enough to save reveal to us who we are. Listen for the whole story, and scroll through the gallery below to take a closer look at the art mentioned in the episode.

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Irving Penn's "The Tarot Reader (Bridget Tichenor and Jean Patchett), New York" with two women in stylist black clothing reading tarot cards with a diagram of a hand behind them