Wall-Chart Wisdom

Peter Wood

“If at first an idea isn’t absurd there is no hope for it.” So reads the side of a couch for sale at Voici! which might be described as a postmodernist emporium in Los Angeles. Voici! sells original art, odd furniture, upholstered everything, “vintage finds,” industrial objects, and pretty much whatever captures the fancy of its owner, Katrien Van der Schueren, a Belgian who used to work at the Flemish Ministry of Culture. Often her attention settles on fragments of 20th-century intellectual life. The quotation on the sofa is from Einstein, and it shows up on her pillows as well, paired with a Larry Rivers quotation, “Everything starts as somebody’s daydream.” Certainly a nice invitation to lie down in reverie.

Ms. Van der Schueren began her collecting very young and among the items she stored up were discarded wall charts for classroom instruction in botany and zoology. Last year Chronicle Books, in San Francisco, brought out a coffee table-sized edition of the highlights of her collection, The Art of Instruction: Vintage Educational Charts form the 19th and 20th Centuries. The book presents the images with spare captions; an appendix provides a detailed key to the complex pictures.

“There are objects from the past that can tell a story greater than what they were originally designed to do.” So begins Van der Schueren’s beautifully concise introduction to the 131 color plates of apple blossoms, crayfish anatomy, and the lifecycle of protozoa. Her sentence calls to mind another book that is currently garnering deserved attention, Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objectsbased on a BBC series.  MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has given himself the larger canvas: a chapter each on a 1.8- to 2-million-year-old “Olduai Stone Chopping-Tool”; a silver coin minted around 305 BC with the “Head of Alexander” in profile; a stone tobacco pipe topped with the carved image of an otter from a North American Indian mound from around 200 BC; on up to a VISA credit card issued by a bank in the United Arab Emirates in 2009. MacGregor’s book is a delight in a number of ways, not least in imbuing the “history of the world” with imaginative vibrancy.

But MacGregor’s book is well-known while Van der Schueren’s is no doubt destined for a smaller market. Many of the wall charts bring to mind the less frequented galleries of natural history museums, such as the glass flower collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History or some of the animal dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. Such exhibits inevitably call to mind a cultural epoch in which craftsmen—glassblowers, taxidermists, painters—took extraordinary pains to get the scientific details right. They believed, implicitly, they were conveying knowledge that mattered and that the public would attend.

In the case of the “Vintage Educational Charts,” the public did indeed attend. These charts first flowered after 1820, according to Van der Schueren, “when compulsory schooling began to spread throughout Europe and classroom size increased.” Lithography made the large-format color printing affordable and compulsory schooling created the mass market.  But this doesn’t explain the exquisite artistry that went into so many of them. Their “aesthetic quality” isn’t just in the eyes of today’s collectors.  Van der Schueren quotes a French minister who called for the school to be “itself a museum, a kind of sanctuary where there is beauty as well as science and virtue.  […] Art must come to [the student] from almost all sides as the air he breathes.”

Some of the charts are the work of painters who were also recognized scientists in their own right, such as Gottlieb von Koch, who became a professor of biology. Von Koch’s black-background charts are montages of whole plants and animals with close-ups of tiny details. Here’s a cowslip primrose, roots and all, with cutaways of its flowers and seeds. Here’s a mistletoe in berry, with insets showing how the parasite’s roots invade the branch of its host. Von Koch’s illustrations are luminous and filled with an air of half-revealed mystery. I can see how they might plant an urge in students to want to go further, to know more about what lies behind such astonishing delicacy.

Pedagogical wall charts haven’t entirely escaped the notice of scholars, but Van der Schueren’s bibliography lists only a dozen items and several websites, all of them European. Some contemporary educational publishers such as Rossignol and Hagemann remain in the wall-chart business, and some such as Deyrolle have created spin-offs such as tea towels with botanical illustration designs. A Dutch website offers a collection of historical “schoolplaten,” though the reproductions are too tepid to capture the strange charm of the images. More helpful is another Web site that portrays the collections of various Dutch institutes.  I came across a notice that Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., discovered its own cache of botanical wall charts and last year mounted an exhibition, Nature Perfected: The Art of Botanical Illustration.

Van der Schueren’s book, The Art of Instruction, I suppose, can be subject to the same dictum she applies to the charts: it tells “a story greater than what [it was] originally designed to do.” The book presents itself as “a celebration of the intrinsic beauty of these charts,” and recognizes that, in their way, they represent a fusion of artistic and scientific visions. But inadvertently, the book testifies to cultural loss as well. The best of the charts revel in facts and express a kind of joy in the knowability of nature. They chart the world, literally, and magnify its minutest parts, revealing beauties that lie beneath and within.  They represent knowledge to be learned, rather than consumed.

We have no shortage of instructional materials today that aim, at some level, to get these facts across, and no doubt we have better tools of visualization than color lithographic wall charts. But it is hard to find much in the instructional media that comes near the epiphanies of these old charts. Why is that?

I’ll venture a hypothesis. It might have something to do with the ennui of postmodernism. If we are drilled in anything these days, it is in the dogmas of perspectivalism. Facts aren’t what they used to be. The contemporary academy’s elevation of “critical thinking” as the highest educational good contributes to boredom with “mere” facts, and “facts” themselves often get skeptical quotation marks, as though we all know, after all, that so-called “facts” are simply social constructions that enjoy a certain degree of currency.

Van der Schueren’s charts are innocent of this epistemological malaise—and are powerful precisely because they glow with the confidence that the knowledge they reveal is solid and important. We could use a little of that confidence these days. Maybe The Art of Instruction is due for revival.  Everything starts as somebody’s daydream.

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