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Exhibitions > Five Cultural Milestones

Eyeglasses from the collection of Claude Samuel

Upper Gallery Design: Tal Gur

My eyes are large and gray; and although, in fact, they are weak to a very inconvenient degree, still no defect in this regard would be suspected from their appearance. The weakness itself, however, has always much annoyed me, and I have resorted to every remedy - short of wearing glasses. Being youthful and good-looking, I naturally dislike these, and have resolutely refused to employ them. I know nothing, indeed, which so disfigures the countenance of a young person, or so impresses every feature with an air of demureness, if not altogether of sanctimoniousness and of age.[Edgar Allan Poe, The Spectacles, 1844]

Eyeglasses have come a long way from the days when people considered it shameful to wear them in public (like Edgar Allan Poe's protagonist) to their important contemporary role in defining identity; from their traditional function as a corrective medical prosthesis to their current
function as a fashion accessory; and from their status as exclusive and expensive symbols of studiousness, wisdom, and prestige to their current popular appeal.

This trajectory is reflected in the rare collection created by Claude Samuel, which is featured in this exhibition. This multifaceted collection includes the small case of lenses that Claude inherited from his grandmother, who wandered through the markets of Paris in the 1930s prescribing lenses to passersby, as well as the rare collection of glasses that his father designed for Pierre Cardin. It also encompasses the figure of the collector, as well as the passion and historical commitmentthat motivate him. At the core of the collection, however, are the eyeglasses themselves - a small, everyday object that is often taken for granted, yet which for more than 700 years has provided most of us - both the nearsighted and the farsighted - with access to reality.

The history of eyeglasses is above all a history of culture, and they may thus be examined from countless perspectives. In this exhibition, we have chosen to examine them from a human point of view. The five Cultural Milestones that make up the display represent five cultural turning points at which eyeglasses played a central role in impacting human development. At the same time, these milestones also reflect the manner in which scientific progress and social change have impacted our
view of eyeglasses.

The journey to explore eyeglasses from the viewpoint of the observing eye begins in the world of medicine, where they were invented as an accessory for corrective vision, and ends in the world of fashion, where they have become a consumer object. This last milestone also completes the ransformation of the designer from an individual charged with fulfilling a practical function into a social commentator. The journey comes to an end with the latest addition to the collection - a case of prosthetic eyes. These blind eyes, which appear to see, expand the discussion of eyeglasses and give rise to new questions - not only about eyeglasses, but also about vision itself.


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