On my bookshelf: Mary Griffiths

The Children's Encyclopaedia by Arthur Mee
Museums Association
Encyclopaedias were made for us to return to, though most printed versions have lost this power, submitting to the internet. But Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Encyclopaedia is a set of 10 books that I’ll never abandon, and do still return to, to wander around its pages.

The edition that I learned to look at as a child in the late 1960s had been bought for my dad in the 1920s. The green volumes were still in good condition, except for the index, its boards a bit battered and its spine showing the tell-tale tear of frequently being pulled from the shelf.

It was understandable that it was extracted so much, as the mysterious “book, group, chapter” classification system meant that the index was the only way of getting to information fast.

But mostly, fast wasn’t needed. Instead, I ambled through the pages, looking at thousands of pictures – colour plates of flags and sea anemones, “picture stories” of building a house, the work of a quarry, the printing of newspapers.

A favourite was the parade of Your Little Friends in Other Lands which was, inevitably, and recognisably racist even then, placing the posh little white boy at the front of the queue.

Of course, these books from the days of empire are full of anachronisms, but they also long to let the reader know more. Through them I learned to look at pictures closely, to make connections that I still use in my work, linking art, literature, history, engineering and science.

Mary Griffiths is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

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