The Printing Museum (Whare Taonga Perehitanga)

The Printing Museum, Wellington, New Zealand

Guest post by Jürgen Wegner. First published in The Shadowland Newsletter, n° 89, September 2018. PO Box 419, Eastwood NSW 2122, Australia. Republished by kind permission.

The Printing Museum Inc. is a New Zealand printing museum which is located not far from the capital city of Wellington. It was established in 1984 when a small group realized that so much historic printing machinery and equipment needed to be rescued from the inevitable: the wreckers. I’ve been there once before and again on a recent visit to Wellington… this is always a must see. Unfortunately, it is a bit hard to get to and on every occasion I have been generously offered a lift there and back by members of the museum. There have been several relocations in the past—if you know anything about printing machinery and equipment you’ll know what this involves—and they are now at a place called Mangaroa in Lower Hutt. Not a long drive from Wellington but not that easy by public transport.

The main building is part of a very large and high storage shed which was built during the last war. If you can visualize New Zealand’s winters, you have to marvel at the hardiness—and dedication—of the volunteers there. I was told that they continue working throughout! They share this space with others and this is where the larger items of machinery including the Linotypes are stored. (Most of the machinery and equipment there remains under wraps, it being a large storage shed). Visualize a country farmyard. A little behind there is a very long and low building of a cast concrete construction. This was originally an ammunition dump and I was told that it was sited in such a way that planes would be up, away and over the nearby hill before anyone realized what they were flying over. One lived in fear of an imminent attack by the Japanese. But, seemingly, an ideal construction for the storage of the museum’s presses, a work area, lunch room and the main event, their Monotype casting operation.

The museum is remarkable for the quantity and quality of the machinery and equipment that it has collected. Even as I was there, a smaller sized Albion had just ‘been left on the doorstep’ by a printer who wanted it to go to a good home. Items are collected and kept but, more importantly, such museums need to be the heart of a wider and even national operation. To act as a place of knowledge and expertise but, equally, to be able to supply machinery and equipment to the many people who are now, again, interested in letterpress printing. Of course, you need to get hold of a press and related gear. But a key function of the printing museums of the future is to supply some of the fundamentals of printing such as type. And here you get a sense of some of the ingenious lateral thinking that is required. Much of the hot metal printing that was done in the past was from cast slugs of type such as those from the Linotype. And there are plenty of Linotypes around. Almost every printing museum has one—or several. As well as Linotype operators.

But these are single use castings. For most letterpress printers and especially fine printers there is a tremendous need for good, quality hand set type. And so a few years ago the Printing Museum Inc. set about establishing a working Monotype casting facility. Where to find such talent? There are groups around which cater for retired engineers but wouldn’t it be better for these to be employed in something real, substantial, productive rather than within a club of ‘hobbyists’. So a couple were co-opted to get the casters running and the rest, as they say, is history. The Printing Museum Inc. now has an extensive casting programme from its substantial collection of Monotype mats. It has even funded two of its museum volunteers to go to Monotype casting training in the UK. And is now exporting type all over the world including to its main export country, Australia! The museum was also the source of the type used by Wellington artist Sonya Lacey for her unusual exhibition Dilutions and Infinitesimals (q.v. Shadowland Newsletter #64.11) which required the casting at the museum of what is described as ‘the first new metal typeface of the century’. Her site is well worth checking out (see below for details).

According to the President’s report for the last AGM (2017), membership now stands at one hundred and thirty with another one hundred and fifteen in their MeetUp group. When you think of it, not a bad number considering that Wellington and New Zealand are comparatively small places—the conditions that the museum’s volunteers work under and the relative remoteness of the location. Their facilities are serviceable but basic. And from the look of things, the museum itself has reached its full capacity. Almost every conceivable space has been used and there is further material located elsewhere as well as more to come. Surely one of the great treasures of New Zealand (and Australian) printing history are not so much their many iron hand presses but rather the two Cossar presses that were gifted to them about ten years ago by Australian Provincial Newspapers[1] who also printed country newspapers in New Zealand. One famous Cossar press is in Edinburgh[2] where it was re-located and restored at considerable cost—they are huge. I was here told that there are three left in the world of which two of these are in New Zealand and gifted to the Printing Museum Inc. Can these ever be moved even if the museum were to obtain large and permanent premises? The cost would be considerable but, to my mind, well worth the expense. This is the kind of printing history our museums ought to be collecting. Possibly on offer are also materials from the Beehive Bindery (Parliament) as well as some of the temporary items from the Te Papa national museum (some fine items but surplus to requirements).

Which is not to say that the Printing Museum Inc is just marking time. There are plans to open a Book Arts Centre. The museum does and has conducted classes on site. Classes such as the fine printing masterclass by erstwhile New Zealand and now Melbourne fine printer Alan Loney (CODEX Australia and the Electio Editions). But also more grounded classes such as the recent Heidelberg masterclass conducted by Graham Judd from GTO Printers in Auckland. But, admittedly, the space is cramped and the amount of expansion needed is limited by facilities and location. The Book Arts Centre is in a fine warehouse building close to the CBD of Wellington where it is anticipated that classes on bookbinding, engraving, papermaking, calligraphy and lettering and similar book arts crafts will be taught. I coincidentally talked to one professional trade craft bookbinder in Wellington who told me he intended to hold classes there. In typical Printing Museum Inc. style, this Book Arts Centre is styled as being part of a Printing Museum and Book Arts Centre complex… for the Southern Hemisphere. I was told that the Book Arts Centre is expected to be operational by early 2019.

A very necessary and permanent home for the Printing Museum Inc. is more problematic. A suitable building has been found in nearby Petone—nearby to Wellington. The economics of the building seem perfect—a very large building with sitting tenants whose rent would finance the considerable loan required for its purchase. Unfortunately, it seems to be one of those Catch 22 situations. Where are all those philanthropists when you need one? And with the bonus of having one’s charity secured by bricks and mortar as well as a steady income to cover repayments. If the project goes ahead, it would be the most significant development in printing museums in New Zealand—and Australia—if not to date than for many, many years. Not only would all the machinery and equipment be in place, there still seems to be so much out there which needs a good home. Urgently. As well as allowing such useful and necessary tasks as the casting but also the training of a younger generation of printers to occur.

As is the case with most printing museums, there are so many things that need doing that some things have not been done so far. There is an inventory on paper but this should really be put online so that people—and not just those in New Zealand—can see the kinds of treasures that the Printing Museum Inc. has in safe keeping. Is biblio-tourism such an outrageous idea? I mean, people travel to the most remote of places to check out—ride in—some obscure kind of train. New Zealand is not unknown as a tourist destination and wouldn’t this just add icing to the cake. To know exactly what you can see and experience when you visit. The obvious would be to list all the iron hand presses such as their 1852 Albion. But it is really in the more ‘mundane’ that a museum’s treasures lie. Such as the Nebitype caster which must surely be the only one in a printing museum in New Zealand or Australia—especially one that is operational. The model here is the Ultra E (1969) with an earlier one in the process of being restored. True to form, the Printing Museum Inc. has issued a type specimen book of Nebitype type set and cast at the museum from their col-lection of Nebitype matrices. (Visiting Garrett Press in Wellington I saw a Nebiolo press of the same vintage—and in operation). Spotted were a Barclay (Manchester) pin perforator. There is also a ca. 1930 Falcon reel-fed sheeter illustrated on their website. Who knows what further unusual items the Printing Museum Inc. has in store for you—apart from all those boring old Albions!

As a librarian I am, of course, always drawn to any type of accumulation of books to the point of there being a library. The Printing Museum Inc. has many books in their collection especially works which are of a technical and/or trade nature. The people who created the museum’s inventory also ‘inventoried’ the books, I believe, for these are all on shelves bearing identifying numbers. As these are all part of one large general sequence it is hard to estimate just how many there are in this ‘library. And there are, no doubt, more. One of which is an almost complete and bound long run of the Monotype recorder which came originally from Monotype’s own library. A catalogue, preferably online, would be useful. Perhaps like the catalogues published by the Association of Handcraft Printers NZ of their library (two editions) or that of the Ferrymead Printing Society in Christchurch. With so many competing tasks and no proper permanent building I can understand that this is not a priority. But it would be great for there to be a real library once a building is found.

I also find that most printing museums out here do so little with the resources at their finger-tips. After all, you would expect a printing museum to be able to and active in… print. This seems often just to be a variety of smaller leaflets and ‘wanted’ posters when the resources and skills are ready to hand to do so much more. The museum has produced quite a number of type specimen books and smaller items on the type in their collection. It has also republished in two versions—an A4 and a smaller A5 version—a portfolio called the Educational series on printing which was first published by the Ferrymead Printing Society in Christchurch as their Graphic arts history collection in 1983. This is a useful series of folded leaflets and brochures outlining for visitors to the museum the early history and development of printing from The alphabet to Types and Wood engraving. A number of ephemeral items of printing have also been produced but there are now plans to produce fine printing as well, including some World War I poetry. One item called A comfortable sock is a fac-simile of the original from 1916 was reissued in 2016. If only printers would print more on the subject of printing! While the material which has issued from their Bedplate Press has been utilitarian, it could just as easily be fine printing. Especially once the Book Arts Centre is underway.

Membership of the Printing Museum Inc. is relatively inexpensive at NZ$40 for individuals. Corporate and family memberships are also available. No mention of overseas membership rates which I imagine would be a little higher. As far as I can see, there is no facility for paying via PayPal which might make it difficult for people overseas to become members. But membership of such a successful and worthwhile operation is encouraged—and not just for those living in New Zealand.

Sources, further reading, webliography:
Printing Museum Inc. website:
Sonya Lacey exhibition:
Cossar presses in ‘GX’:

[1] A.P.N. donate rare Cossar presses to the Printing Museum, The historical times, 2 (2008) 2, p. [1].