Australian national printing museum goes under the hammer

Melbourne Museum of Printing’s collections auctioned off

Thoughts on the recent sale and dispersal of a unique, once in a century collection of historic printing materials, and a foonote on some Australian printing museums which never quite made it. From our Australian correspondant Jürgen Wegner, editor of The shadowland newsletter, Eastwood, New South Wales, Australia. First published in The shadowland newsletter, n° 104, December 2019.

The biggest event to occur in a generation or more was the auction of the Melbourne Museum of Printing at the end of November. While Australia has a great number of printing museums scattered around the country, there has only really been one that could lay claim to being a national printing museum: the Melbourne Museum of Printing. This museum was the collection personally created by Michael Isaacson in the hope that there would be a significant and lasting collection of our printing history available.

I had first met Isaacson when I visited his warehouse in the early Eighties. Someone once commented to me that he was an omnivorous collector—a hoarder, even—who, through his all-encompassing collecting, had prevented others from getting equipment, especially individuals who wanted to set up letterpress printeries. Quite the opposite, I believe. For Isaacsen originally set himself up as a vendor of letterpress machinery and equipment. From what I have been told—I was never close or in touch with Isaacsen though I visited and was given the Grand Tour on several occasions—his family owned a property in the country outside of Melbourne. He discovered the Adana when young and his interest over the years developed into what eventually became the Melbourne Museum of Printing.

This was at a time when people couldn’t get rid of printing machinery and equipment fast enough. Often it was sold for scrap if only to prevent someone from setting up in competition knocking out business cards and letterheads. I remember well one printery which started off as a private press and which had smashed up their Albion for scrap, keeping only the base to use as a stone. This was the general climate at the time. The dissolution of the New South Wales Government Printing Office in 1989 was part of a wave of closures of these massive and historic printeries throughout Australia and New Zealand. Another fire sale of Australian printing history. Such printeries had histories which went back to the early years of the colonies to before we became Australia and often contained historic machinery and equipment going back to these early times. I believe that Isaacsen’s massive and historically important collection of Monotype mats were from the collection of the New South Wales Government Printer. And, no doubt, much else of what was in the collection came from similar sources.

When I visited him in the early Eighties, I remember a huge warehouse floor in Footscray filled with rows and rows of platen presses. Where would all of these have gone to if Isaacsen hadn’t been around to ‘hoard’ them. In fact, his business was to rescue letterpress machinery and equipment, store it and eventually on-sell it to printers, commercial and private. He also attempted to supply the type necessary for letterpress printing and for a time also operated as the Australian Type Company—as I think it was called. So, to begin with, not a printing museum. I speculate that trying to make a living from selling letterpress machinery and equipment at a time when everyone was dumping such stuff and transitioning to newer forms of printing was not a path to fame and fortune. I speculate that in this there was the germ of the idea to create a national printing museum. Bring together a diverse and significant collection of printing machinery and equipment and establish it as a museum. Then operating costs would be covered and its future assured.

But this is Australia. And even in more famous places overseas, people are struggling. First of all, who is interested in printing history. And then there is the challenge of getting people to pay for admission. I doubt many of our printing museums would survive if they started charging twenty or thirty dollars per person for entry. You do get school groups and busloads of old age pensioners. But who can cover what are significant overheads by gold coin donation? You can conduct workshops but even if you charge ‘realistically’, it will never be enough. There has to be government and/or industry support—a significant contribution. Without such external funding, printing museums of any size cannot hope to survive here. The local Penrith Museum of Printing has had a major sponsor without whom things would have looked very different.

But the most successful model is that developed by the Printing Museum Inc. in Wellington which has hit on an extraordinary solution through lateral thinking. Providing a casting service not only to New Zealand printers but to printers overseas that is comprehensive and quite affordable. The dissolution of the New Zealand Government Printing Office saw their substantial collection of mats go to the Ferrymead printing museum in Christchurch. An unfortunate decision to pass on some of these led to problems about ownership when it was decided to relocate the mats to Wellington. Where a major type casting service was set up. This has now been enhanced by the huge collection of mats from the Melbourne Museum of Printing/New South Wales Government Printing Office. A national loss of our printing heritage? Given the inaction of Australians, perhaps New Zealand is where we should be looking to for the future.

The last iteration of Isaacsen’s museum was the move to what I can only describe as palatial business premises, again in Footscray. This was a very large and modern two-storied building with a shop and offices in front, warehouse out back. The kind of building you would see occupied by a major distributor of whitegoods, for example. The rent must have been astronomical. I can only think that this was Isaacson’s last gamble. That he quite well knew that the future for the museum did not look good and that by putting everything out on show—the whole wealth and grandeur of the collection—someone might see and take steps to establish the museum on a permanent footing. In the end, it meant the accumulation of an enormous amount of debt. Which led, eventually, to its closure and auction to pay off debts.

Many people interested in printing had realized that there could be only one end but the winding up of the museum and eventual auction took a long time. When the auction did come, I was given an advance wink and a nudge. I searched and searched online but the details were only made available at the last minute. As I plan my work often six or more months in advance, I was overseas at the time. Typical of my luck. I discovered after my return that a number of friends had sent me the details of the auction, details which I received well after the auction was over.

Now I am not a collector of printing machinery and equipment but did Isaacsen also collect printed matter about printing &c? I don’t remember seeing any great quantity of printed matter on any of my visits. There would be machinery handbooks and manuals but these always go with the machinery when it is sold. I do remember Penrose annuals but there is little point in collecting such stuff. Once, I had been on a tour of one of the warehouses. I noticed a whole pallet of large bound type specimen books. All the same. In packets and there must have been about five hundred of them. Some of the packets were open as if the producers had been removing copies to give to customers. I do not know Isaacsen’s thoughts but remember that it called on all of our considerable persuasive skills for him to give me just one of these. So was Isaacsen a ‘hoarder’ of printed matter on printing &c. Or was he like most people who are into printing machinery and equipment. I have been to several auctions of printeries in the past where the first thing to go into the bin and to be cleared out before the auction was anything printed.

A friend of mine in Melbourne sent me links to the auction catalogues. They are a testimony to the old adage that in brevity there is wit. The two catalogues are quite brief even though the lots number almost a thousand. Most of the entries are one-liners. Another peculiar feature is that the first auction of about a quarter of the museum’s collection is an online auction. The question is why. Why would there be an online auction as well as a ‘live’ auction? Especially when you have items in it such as :

  • Lot 39: Library of reference books – [20, 50, 100 or 1000]?
  • Lot 133: 3 trays of timber block (?) type [Followed by nineteen lots of the same – wood type]?
  • Lot 234: Library of books & manuals – 1 pallet [sic]
  • Lot 278: 5 x Ludlow matrix cabinets & contents [Followed by 8 other lots of the same but varying from 5 to 9]

There were also a couple of Albions listed, a Wharfedale, a C&P and so on. Adanas sold in job lots. But it is really the more unusual items which matter such as the Typograph (lot 155). I saw this at the museum during my last tour of the place where I was told that that it was from the Sydney Morning Herald! I wonder what that was sold for? Its manuals were sold separately. There would be few items of machinery which could be as useful in impressing printing museum visitors—when demonstrated, that is.

The online auction comprised 286 lots. This was followed by the actual auction on Saturday, 30th November, of lots 300 to 763. This actual auction seems to have been an auction of miscellanea of anything from neon signs, telephone exchange switchboards, electric typewriters, ‘copper cable, copper wiring, vintage switchgear & electrical (contents 4 bays of shelving)’ to a whole ‘pallet & contents of vintage timber printing blocks & type’ (lot 424). Lots containing printed matter of relevance were:

  • Lot 304: Printers type face library poster
  • Lot 314: Library of assorted books, reference guides and sundries
  • Lot 339: Approx. 30 boxes vintage books, magazines and collectables
  • Lot 353: The Penrose annuals, letterpress annuals collection from approx. 1949-1979 – not complete
  • Lot 354: Large quantity of assorted books & reference, Readers’ digest, encyclopedia, print magazines & miscellaneous books (remaining contents of 5 bays of shelving)
  • Lot 362: Typograph reference books – vintage, dating back to 1920’s & various  Lot 372: 13 boxes containing printer magazines, newspapers & various papers & books
  • Lot 381: Miscellaneous books, magazines, brochures & sundry vintage & collectable items (contents of 13 bays of shelving – approx. 100 boxes)
  • Lot 385: Significant collection of newspapers, magazines, paper, office supplies, printing blocks & sundries (contents of 6 bays of shelving – multiple boxes)
  • Lot 397: Newspaper collections – Various (contents of 3 timber crates)
  • Lot 399: Printed brochures, books, newspapers, magazines & literature (contents of 2 pallets – multiple boxes)
  • Lot 405: Entire collection of Mx daily newspaper – believed to be missing only 4 editions – collection located upstairs & downstairs store
  • Lot 414: Pallets containing approx. 30 Linotype & Intertype magazines & contents of brass type
  • Lot 415: Pallets containing approx. 60 Linotype & Intertype magazines & contents of brass type
  • Lot 416: Pallets containing approx. 37 Linotype & Intertype magazines & contents of brass type
  • Lot 423: Pallets containing approx. 50 Linotype & Intertype magazines & contents of brass type
  • Lot 604: Box of Eaglehawk Press early paperwork, original plant set up manifest
  • Lot 629: Stillages & contents of various timber printing blocks, miscellaneous items & books
  • Lot 679: Large library various books and quantity assorted printing blocks (contents of stillage)
  • Lot 753: Quantity brass type, Lino parts, books & miscellaneous items (contents of stillage)
  • Lot 757: Library of vintage newspapers & various collectables (contents of stillage)

For me this was all academic, of course. If I had known the date before I left for overseas perhaps it would have been worthwhile rebooking my trip but then I only found out about the date of the auction after my return. Then again, what would I have done with something like lot 381 of ‘Miscellaneous books, magazines, brochures & sundry vintage & collectable items (contents of 13 bays of shelving – approx. 100 boxes)’? How would I have shifted these? And is there any point in adding more material to a mountain of an archive no-one wants? I wonder if these were bought by local antiquarian booksellers? Perhaps a glut on the market, shortly?

I’ve had some feedback from friends and associates and it looks to have been something of a fire sale. For example, one account received goes: ‘Quite remarkable scenes at the live auction – I will probably never see anything like it again in my lifetime – the auctioneer started slow, then sped up – around 100 lots an hour at the end. Want 1,000 loose typecases? – gone in 30 seconds at $4.50 each. Want a printing press? 30 seconds to bid and then on to the next one. Want a double cabinet of curved type – possibly unique in the world – gone for $2,000 in 30 seconds. Want 5 bays (that’s 20 shelves) of cardboard boxes of miscellaneous stuff – gone in 30 seconds.’ (Email from Philip Moorhouse, 11 Dec., 2019.)

Another friend also mentions that a few years ago Monotype was selling mats for about $2,500 each. Here they went for a dollar.

A once in a lifetime opportunity to establish a national printing museum up in smoke. Perhaps a once in a century event? But we can always pop over to Wellington for this. Also perhaps from the view of printed matter? If only there was in Australia a special collection on the history of print culture or ‘books and printing’. What a shot in the arm the material in the Melbourne Museum of Printing would have been. May have been? But then again, this is also something that we have been waiting over forty years for.

Finally, I know that Isaacsen has had a fair amount of ‘bad press’ over the years. There are a few interesting stories that I have been told. But when you look through the auction catalogues and see the breadth of the collection, I think that he will go down in Australian printing history as an extraordinary personality—and the museum he created as an extraordinary collection. Unfortunately, we don’t have the vision to see this established as a permanent national museum of printing. Perhaps the New Zealanders will have more luck.

 


A footnote on printing museums which never quite made it…

Jürgen Wegner, The shadowland newsletter, n° 105, January 2020.

The demise of the Melbourne Museum of Printing—MMOP or the far snappier MelMOP—should not come as a surprise to any of us. Remember the days when we had not one but two printing historical societies in Australia! The Australian Printing Historical Society and the Victorian Printing Historical Society, both of which sank without trace. Michael Isaacsen’s Melbourne Museum of Printing is of that same vintage. But going through some papers just now, I came across a couple of other interesting footnotes to some of our printing history which also failed to launch.

The August 1983 issue of Selclarion, the house journal of Seligson & Clare, best known as the on-sellers of Heidelbergs in Australia and New Zealand, contains a full-page report titled The Power House Project (p. 28). This recounts the advances made in giving the fair city of Sydney and the people of the State of New South Wales a world class museum of science and technology. The museum did eventuate and was then and is now called the Powerhouse Museum. It occupies prime real estate on Harris Street, Ultimo, just outside the city centre—but soon to be moved to the ‘burbs to make way for real estate development. Part of Sydney’s Golden Mile of Printing which included the extraordinary and magnificent New South Wales Government Printing Office, the School of Graphic Arts building as well as the building of the media behemoth, Fairfax’s Sydney morning herald. Here there was literally a Columbian on every street corner!

The article is mainly about progress with the museum project, though the one-third page colour photograph is educational—and illuminating. It shows a young Des Barret (Curator of Technology) together with Tim Hobson (Museum Design Co-ordinator) admiring a London Albion by A. Wilson & Sons. The press is incomplete as it is in the process of being restored. As in professionally restored and not painted up in several bright shades of high gloss house paint. The comments about the direction the museum was then taking is in stark contrast to what Australian and New Zealand museums represent today:

‘Within the history of technology hall will be an exhibition entitled “Historical Reconstruction” and this will include an entire printing plant from the past’.

‘Des Barret is Curator of Technology for the Power House Project and one of his responsibilities is to develop this printing plant’.

‘It is still in the early stages but we already have a lot of good pieces, a couple of Albion hand presses, a Stanhope machine, and Columbian presses [note the plural —JW]. Ultimately though we want to show a complete plant of the last century right down to the last detail from the presses to the type racks, to the posters that were on the walls, and the exact clothing printers in those days wore’.

‘As with every exhibit in the museum, all the pieces in the printing plant will be restored to their original condition. If you have any old “museum pieces” gathering dust, whether it be an old press or a single piece of type [sic], the Power House has a place for it’—Selclarion, 49 (Aug. 1983), p. 28.

Des Barret is given as the contact as are Seligson & Clare. Did this Hall of Nineteenth Century Printing ever eventuate? The last time I was at the Powerhouse Museum they had one solitary item of printing machinery on display—a huge C&P but in the display hall of the age of steam.

Five years later, Inklings, the newsletter of the Victorian Printing Historical Society, reprints an article which had appeared in the monthly journal for members of the printing trades’ union, the PKIU news, for March 1988. ‘How quickly the present becomes not only the past, but the historic past’. Something which could equally be said of these projects! The article describes a similar one starting south in Victoria, the State Printing Collection. The item begins with the realization that: ‘Throughout Victoria some treasures have remained undiscovered or unrecognised, while others have been discarded as having no value’—Inklings, 6 (June 1988), p. [7]

So, an initial working group of members of the PKIU, PATEFA and Museum Victoria had been created and was meeting to ‘determine a strategy for retaining our printing heritage’:

‘Old printing machinery … is part of our heritage and a start has been made by Museum Victoria to ensure that the history of printing and publishing is preserved by gathering obsolete equipment and printing memorabilia before such valuable items are lost to us forever’—P. [7]

The project was well-thought out in that not only was there a desire to collect, the idea was to document all the existing historical items still surviving as a first task, so that some kind of historic register could be created. And so that people could notify the State Printing Collection if they were thinking of disposing of material—so that nothing would just be dumped. Does this register still exist? The idea was for all this printing machinery and equipment to be exhibited at the proposed Museum of Science and Technology at Spotswood which is now more of a children’s theme park than a museum. I do believe that one of Australia’s greatest print-related items of machinery is held somewhere down at Spotswood in storage—though I have never been able to see it. This is the scale model paper machine which started Australia along its road as a major paper and pulp manufacturer using local hardwoods.

Both of these museums do have large collections of printing machinery and equipment in storage, some of it quite extraordinary. Museum Victoria, for example, has the original wooden hand press used by Fawkner but this is on display in the section on the history of Victoria. But our science and technology museums have virtually nothing dealing with printing on display despite the significant amount of interest and work as attested to above in the Eighties.