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Encyclopedia of the Familiar, 2015

David J. Harper

Look closely at David R. Harper’s multimedia embroideries from MAD’s permanent collection to reflect on centuries-old systems for collecting, defining, and categorizing the world around us. Find the meaning hidden beneath the surface and tell the story of one of your possessions in this object lesson for all ages.


The mysterious qualities of David R. Harper’s multimedia embroideries imply that the stories objects tell are in the eyes of the beholder and that meaning is often hidden beneath the surface.

  • Take a piece of paper and make a line in the middle. On one side of the line, list all the objects you can see on the horse to the left; on the other, list all the objects on the horse to the right.
  • Compare the two lists. What do they have in common? What differences stand out?
  • In your mind, is there any logic to the way the objects are organized? Please explain.

If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the horse shapes are sculpted out of animal hide, horsehair, cotton, and linen, and that the shapes on the bodies of the horses are embroidered rather than printed or painted on.

  • Why do you think Harper chose the process of stitching rather than another technique for this work?
  • Sometimes artists use certain materials or processes to better communicate with the viewer. Do you think that’s the case here?


Harper has a strong interest in material culture, the study of how objects are made, valued, and consumed. Through his work, he tries to get people to think beyond first impressions of the things around us to better understand the stories and deeper meanings of our possessions. In his words, “All objects have a history. When you pick up a ceramic mug that was made two hundred years ago, it’s most likely been touched by many, many hands, including the maker’s. That ceramic mug could have held something phenomenal.”

  • How else could we categorize or sort the objects included in Encyclopedia of the Familiar?
  • Is there more than one way to sort them?
  • What categories can you come up with?
  • Are there any objects that don’t “fit in”?
  • Why do you think the artist chose to depict these particular objects?
  • What meanings emerge from the way they are laid out and juxtaposed?
  • Can you think of an object you own that has a story that might not be apparent at first glance?


The title Harper chose for this work is Encyclopedia of the Familiar. It references different ways in which knowledge is organized within books or museum collections in Western culture, going back to the sixteenth century’s Kunst und Wunderkammer. These “art and wonder” chambers displayed encyclopedic collections of all kinds of objects and diverse materials.

  • Why do you think Harper chose the shape of a horse, folded out into two halves, as the foundation for this work?

Harper’s use of taxidermy hints at his interest in museums of natural history, as do a number of the objects depicted. He explains: “The natural history museum is trying to control the uncontrollable, it’s taking the wild and holding it still so we can closely observe it. In my work, I am trying to create moments, to hold them still so people can better understand history.”

  • Do you think his approach works?
  • What have you learned from this work?


From the selection of objects featured in Encyclopedia of the Familiar, choose one that stands out for you and write its story:

  • How and by whom was it made? Where was it found? Who used it? What is it a part of?
  • What happened next to the object? Did it change owners? Did it get damaged? How?
  • Where did the object end up? Where is it now? How was it changed over time? Who found it?

David R. Harper (Canada, b. 1984)
Encyclopedia of the Familiar
, 2015
192 × 82 × 12 in. (487.7 × 208.3 × 30.5 cm)
Polyurethane, cow hide, linen, cotton embroidery floss, steel, synthetic hair, horse hair, epoxy clay, enamel
Museum of Arts and Design, New York; gift of the Kohler Foundation, Inc., 2017

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