Georgios Boudalis, who is the curator of the Focus Project, Codex and the Crafts in Late Antiquity, was a spring 2015 research fellow and a fall 2016 visiting professor at Bard Graduate Center. Currently, he is the head of the Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, Greece. He has worked in monastic libraries in Sinai, Egypt, and in Mount Athos, Greece, as well as in a number of smaller manuscript collections. He received his PhD from the University of the Arts London, where he studied the evolution of Byzantine and post-Byzantine bookbinding. His main interest is the evolution of bookbinding structures and techniques in the Eastern Mediterranean. He has published on issues of bookbinding history and manuscript conservation and has taught courses on the history of Byzantine and related bookbindings, both on a historical and practical basis.

Tell us about your academic background, how you became interested in bookbinding, and what brought you to the Bard Graduate Center as a research fellow in 2015.

I was initially trained in paintings conservation in Florence, Italy, and continued my studies in conservation in Athens, Greece, where I came across book conservation. As I have always loved books, in a way it was a natural choice. So I slightly deviated from my original subject and graduated with a specialization in book and paper conservation. A few years later I received a scholarship from the University of the Arts London, where I began my PhD research on the history of bookbinding in conjunction with the St. Catherine’s Library Conservation Project which was starting in Sinai, Egypt. Subsequently I spent five productive and exciting years doing research there and also in the Iviron Monastery in Mount Athos, Greece. My dissertation, which I completed in 2005, focused on how bookbinding techniques and decoration were affected in the transition from the Byzantine to the post-Byzantine periods (between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries).

The Sinai library, in particular, preserves extremely important and much earlier codices in almost pristine condition. It was by handling and working with these that I somehow shaped the questions which formed the basis of my research at Bard Graduate Center. A major collection of early bindings is preserved today at the Morgan Library and Museum so the BGC fellowship provided an ideal combination of resources and context. When I applied in 2014, I had already started and partly presented at a conference the first results of my research on the relation of the making of the codex with other artifacts. While completing the research at BGC in 2015, I had the privilege of working extensively with the Morgan Library’s Coptic manuscript holdings.

The broad view on material culture and art and design history that characterizes Bard Graduate Center fitted perfectly into my research precisely because my aim was to look at books not as content but rather as containers—in other words as utilitarian objects produced in a specific cultural and technological context and explore were and how they fit in these.

Do you think of yourself as a curator or more as a conservator?

This is an interesting question. In fact friends and colleagues will occasionally ask me the same thing. For me, being a curator was a very natural thing. I think that curators often lack a practical understanding of the object they study while conservators lack a sound theoretical background for the objects on which they work. Through my research, papers, lectures, and workshops I have always tried to bridge the gap between them as I think this is the only way to fully understand and appreciate the objects on which I work. Because of my previous research and studies and especially because of my practical work as a book conservator, I have a holistic understanding of bookmaking both on a historical but more importantly on a practical level. The question then was to turn that understanding and knowledge into a story to tell to people in a direct, clear and appealing way. In order to explain how books were made and decorated in my lectures I use photos, films and short animations, as well as hands-on sessions. So essentially I curate my lectures and in a way I thought of the current exhibition similarly—a still lecture if you like, although in a different format, where instead of me, it would be the objects, the explanatory texts, the digital interactive component, and the film speaking. Looking at it this way, it wasn’t that different after all. I also think that working in a museum for twenty years and having worked as a conservator in the preparation and installation of numerous exhibitions, I was familiar with many of the processes. So to make it brief, I felt extremely comfortable working as a curator especially having the help and support of such a great group of professionals that staff the BGC’s Focus Project and publication teams.

The exhibition focuses on how fabric-making techniques were assimilated into the making of the multi-quire codex. Can you explain this more.

This specific connection between fabrics and books was the starting point of my research on which the focus exhibition is based. Codices are essentially made of paper or parchment gatherings, bearing a text, which are sewn together. The techniques for sewing these gatherings differ according to the time and place where the book was made. I wanted to understand where the specific sewing technique used in the earliest codices, between the third and the tenth centuries, came from. Was it invented out of nothing? Or was it adapted from another technique or craft? It turns out that in fact it is identical to a fabric making technique used, in the same time and in the same cultural and technological context, for the making of socks and possibly other garments, as well. Indeed, it is still used today in several parts of the world. In structural terms, the book is essentially a fabric. This is one of the most interesting things that came out of this project. The connection I have described is, of course, based on sound evidence but at the beginning it seemed farfetched. The research that followed reveals many different connections between book making and other crafts and I think that it all looks and sounds logical and sensible now. Instead of inventing something out of nothing the people living during the late antiquity period adapted the skills they already had in order to produce this new object, the codex. In this sense, the book is not an invention as we often assume, but is rather an innovation— not unlike other objects that incorporate processes of evolution and adaptation.

In your view, what is the single most important aspect that the visitor should take away from the exhibition?

My aim is to make people look closer to the material aspects of books and to realize that these objects—the very medium through which most of human knowledge has been transmitted—are in practical terms not unlike the rest of the objects produced by people in order to deal with specific needs, in our case the need to record our thoughts and our knowledge. At the same time I would like my colleagues who work in book conservation to have a broader view of the object of our work and a deeper understanding of its history.

What else can you say about your time at Bard Graduate Center? What are your current projects?

The exhibition and the catalogue have been extremely well received and I am very happy for that as there is really a lot of work and effort behind them—and not just by me. As I mentioned earlier, the Bard Graduate Center staff who worked on the exhibition and the publication should be acknowledged for their efficiency, high standards, and hard work. Because of this project—both the exhibition and the catalogue —I have been invited to take part in several conferences, symposia, and research projects. I try to accept these invitations as much as possible, considering that I also have to carry on my work as the head of the Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory at the Museum of Byzantine Culture.

It is not common to ask a conservator to curate an exhibition. I hope I will serve as an example for other conservators to pursue more research and try to find ways to reach a wider audience, especially art historians, curators, anthropologists, and material culture specialists. I am currently in the process of finishing a book, which I have been writing and illustrating for the last eight years, that focuses on the making of endbands. The small sewn bands at the head and tail edges of books, these are another example of how books are very closely connected to other objects, in this case fabrics. I am sure that the catalogue we produced for the Focus Project will make it much easier for me to find a good publisher for this, my second book.

On a completely different note, I recently had my first solo exhibition of botanical watercolors. Most of the thirty-three paintings in the show are ‘portraits’ of some of my orchids which I try to paint when they bloom for the first time, if I can find the time, of course! Botanical watercolors have to be both beautiful and scientifically accurate. They require not only good painting skills but also the ability to see and visually understand and ‘dissect’ things. Drawing itself, something I used extensively in both the Codex exhibition and in the catalogue, is, first of all, an exciting mental process as you have to see, then mentally analyze what you see, and finally recreate what you see on paper.