The importance of keeping the history of printing alive

By Caroline Archer, Monday 08 July 2019

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Heritage professionals must act now to bring print, in all its guises, to the attention of the public now and for future generations.


Robert Smail’s Printing Works in Scotland

The John Jarrold Printing Museum is under threat. At a meeting of the Norwich Planning Committee, held earlier this year, the proposal to redevelop the site of the old Jarrold Printing Works was approved by a narrow majority, despite the appeals of those present. The holdings will be placed in storage, although there is an intention to open a static museum with a small selection of the material and the remainder will go for disposal.

The museum’s steering group has just launched an appeal to create a new, permanent museum in the city, although Jarrold & Sons has rebuffed the idea, saying it is uncosted.

But just as one printing museum closes, so another begins. The Atelier-Musée Imprimerie (AMI) opened last September at Malesherbes just south of Paris. Created by Jean-Paul Maury, CEO of one of France’s biggest printing groups, the AMI provides 5,000m² of exhibition space, actively demonstrates printing from its inception through to today, and has 700 objects on display including 150 printing machines selected from the 300 the museum owns.

The desire to preserve print’s heritage is, however, not new. Since the nineteenth century, printing museums have been opening, closing and adapting themselves to current conditions. But how did the highly practical trade of printing become a legitimate subject for conservation?

Ever since Gutenberg started printing from moveable type in the fifteenth century, the trade has had its documenters, men who attempted to defend the profession for future generations by itemising books that had been printed; describing the tools of the trade; the means of production; and attempting an historiography of the typographic arts.

By the eighteenth century, as a result of increased interest in science and technology, printing had piqued the curiosity of the “gentleman amateur” who collected, for their own edification and that of others, all sorts of scientific instruments and machines—including industrial and miniature printing presses.

The appeal of print filtered through the social ranks. The Birmingham Gazette of 2 May 1763 reported that “the most curious piece of machinery that ever was exhibited to the public” would be on display in the town and that it represented “a Printer at Work, who prints, at Desire, a City, Town or Persons Name”.

As anyone who has ever set and printed a line of type knows, it gives a real sense of satisfaction and the operations of the printing press seem to always have had an allure for the layman.

When the River Thames froze over (1739-40; 1788-9; 1813-14), printers set up their presses on the ice and produced keepsakes for “people and ladyes [who] took a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and the year set down when printed on the Thames”. Throughout the eighteenth century, printers capitalised on the public’s interest in the craft by opening their doors to visitors and producing “personalised” keepsakes to mark the occasion.

Typographic heritage
This interest was formalised in the mid-nineteenth century when typographic heritage was made available to the public, not only through specialist printing museums but also libraries, archives and university special collections dedicated to preserving the artefacts of the craft, and interpreting the economic and industrial aspects of print’s heritage. During this period, Europe saw the creation of several print-related museums, such as the Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp (1877); the Gutenberg Museum, Mainz (1900); Museé du livre, Brussels (1906) and the Enschedé Museum, Haarlem (1904).

While in the UK the papermaking and printing section of the South Kensington Museum was initiated around 1890 and St Bride Printing Library opened in 1895. An important facet of these collections was they not only displayed the tools and techniques of the trade, they also exhibited the products of the press. These museums were established in a favourable economic climate.

It was also a time when nation states were being constructed and printing museums helped create national identities through their celebration of major inventions and personalities: Gutenberg, Caxton, Senefelder. They were part of a wave of great national and international expositions—including the Great Exhibition, London (1851) and the Printing, Stationery, Paper Making & Kindred Trades Exhibition & Market, London (1880), which later became IPEX.

In the early twentieth century, attention turned to the establishment of museums that focused on a particular aspect of the trade – for example, newspapers, paper or fabric printing. Notable examples include the Museé international de la presse, Brussels (1907), the Dard Hunter Paper Museum, Massachusetts (1939) and the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad (1949).

By the mid-twentieth century, printing had entered a period of reconstruction and modernisation as it moved from a craft-based trade to technology-led industry. The arrival of photocomposition, electronics and computers augured the end of hot metal and relief printing.

In response, a new wave of printing museums were established, dedicated to the celebration of print’s glorious past: Klingspor Museum, Offenbach (1953); Museo Bodoniano, Parma (1963); Museé de l’imprimerie et de la banque, Lyon (1964); and the John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford (1968).

As letterpress was superseded first by offset printing and then digital networks, the trade realised the practical knowledge of how to print from metal type was about to be lost and that a generation of printers was in danger of disappearing along with their skills and knowhow. As a result, in the closing decades of the twentieth century, numerous museums opened across Europe, the US and the UK with the intention of preserving equipment, processes and products that were disappearing from print’s landscape.

These dedicated museums were fully operational. In the UK, the John Jarrold Printing Museum, Norwich (1982), William Clowes Print Museum, Beccles (1984), Robert Smail’s Printing Works, Innerleithen (1990), and Gray’s Printing Press, Strabane were established to preserve print’s past. The contents for these came from various sources, including private collectors, printers modernising their plant or presses that were closing down.

Today, the William Clowes museum has closed its doors and the collection dispersed, and John Jarrold is also under threat of closure; but Smails and Grays remain open and operational, largely because they are in the care of the National Trust with a band of volunteers to keep them accessible and in working order.

Gaining access to some collections can be a challenge. The St Bride Printing Library in London, for example, is only open for two days a month. The National Typefounding Collection is also located in London, at the Type Archive in Stockwell. However, in its 26 years of existence, the Type Archive has never been open to the public and remains prohibitively expensive for researchers. Its collections belong to the Science Museum and it is currently described as being ‘open by appointment’.

‘Living museums’
Living museums, which depict the lives of our predecessors, often re-create small letterpress print shops. At the Black Country Living Museum, Ironbridge Gorge Museum and Beamish Museum, visitors can watch printers at work and purchase “personalised” printed souvenirs, just like the visitors to eighteenth-century printing shops and frost fairs.

Nestled in the South Downs in Sussex is Amberley Museum, which features a wide range of working industrial heritage exhibits including a sizeable print workshop. Smaller historic properties such as Winterbourne House, Birmingham, or Snowshill House, Gloucestershire, also have fully operational printing press as an added attraction for visitors. These presses earn their keep through the production of gifts such as greeting cards and posters, which are retailed to visitors.

In recent years, the rate at which new printing museums have opened has been reduced. This may be because there are fewer collections waiting to be exhibited. Under-financing, restricted budgets and the collapse of the financial system in 2008 are also to blame. Some major collections have failed to find sponsors or backing from regional authorities. Printing museums are also faced with the impending disappearance of the last generation of printers to have practiced commercially either hot-metal or stone lithography techniques leaving them with the problem of who will operate and maintain the machinery in their care.

In 2018, the National Print Museum, Dublin, addressed the problem when it successfully secured funding for a potentially significant project entitled Making our Impression. This is a skills transfer programme, which facilitates the transmission of expertise from one generation to another, who in turn will pass on these skills to the next generation through a specifically designed education programme. If it succeeds, and proves sustainable, this may go some way to addressing the “knowhow” problem. If not, then these operational museums will join the ranks of those that have to content themselves with static displays, such as the show of historic presses in the British Library or the Wharfedale presses in the Otley Museum.

The overwhelming majority of printing museums are dedicated to the preservation and demonstration of letterpress. There is, undoubtedly, a romance and aesthetic to the process and, in our digital world, the physicality and tactility of letterpress appeals to the public’s imagination and satisfies their demand for nostalgia. But letterpress is not the whole story of print. Process engraving, transfer printing, chromolithography, offset litho, photocomposition, electronics and computers have all played their part in the development of print, but have, by and large, been overlooked by printing museums.

These other processes need to be considered for conservation if we are to truly preserve the history of print for future generations. Widening the remit does, however, open up new perspectives for the preservation of printing heritage and creates new challenges for printing museums. Heritage professionals need to re-evaluate their printing collections and the methods by which material is exhibited and interpreted in order to bring print, in all
its guises, to the attention of as broad a public as possible both now and for future generations.

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