Publications / After printing. Bookbinding as cultural heritage

Educational and production workshops. Why have both in a museum?

AEPM 2018

Educational and production workshops. Why have both in a museum?

Text of a paper given by José Bonifacio Bermejo Martin at the conference of the Association of European Printing Museums, After printing: bookbinding as cultural heritage, Imprenta Municipal – Artes del Libro, Madrid, (Spain), 24-26 May 2018.

This year’s AEPM conference deals with printing museums and bookbinding and is being hosted by a printing museum which has the particularity of offering workshops to both professionals and the general public.

Printing museums usually display historical artefacts and offer explanations about their significance, evolution, and the different techniques that have been used over time. Indeed the main objective of a printing museum needs to be the full explanation of the history of the production and publication of books and other printed matter with, perhaps, a particular accent on their technical and artistic aspects. The items in the museum are part of this explanation but are not enough in themselves for such aspects – which can be defined as being tangible – do not cover the full range of knowledge concerning cultural phenomena  related to the graphic arts, written culture, the books arts and history. This is because it is necessary to explain other aspects of their history which require workshops that show skills and techniques live. Workshops  are the necessary complements to the physical items in the museum’s collections, and as such offer the means of providing a more efficient explanation of the historical and cultural aspects of the act of printing.

If we were to draw up a general framework of research into the history of the graphic arts – the subject of printing museums – there are two ways in which we might go about this. The first would be to establish a time-line of the evolution from the origins to the present day for a specific area (country, region, city). The second would be to adopt a transversal approach to a given historical moment in the time-line, covering the full range of activities that are included when we refer to graphic arts. For example, if we are researching printing in Madrid during the seventeen-century we should start by making an inventory of all kinds of activities that are involved: paper making, the manufacture and sale of type, typesetting and printing workshops. In this case the different artefacts and other elements that we could use for our research would include:

  • Materials, such as tools, presses and examples of printing.
  • Documents and papers about the topic.
  • Intangible elements concerning trades and skills.

Thus, in oral or written explanations, the direct visualization of the artefacts is complemented by explanations elaborated on the basis of the literature and documentary sources that have grounded the research and made it possible to draw conclusions and contextualise the items by placing them in a particular situation with respect to the people who used them (wages, social status, living conditions, education and skills…) or, on another level, with respect to the conditions of production (economics, including statistics about workshops and output, etc.).

In this way we could describe the historical reality surrounding a given graphic technique.

This method is very common in museums or in interpretive centres in various domains. In the case of a cultural activity such as the graphic arts, we also need to take account of the third, intangible, aspect: the origins, growth, transformation and extinction of trades, techniques, skills and working methods.

Techniques, trades and work procedures are part of what we call intangible cultural heritage as well as of its conservation, documentation, research and dissemination or, in the event that they have been lost, their recovery. And this is where workshops come into the work of a museum, be they professional and productive, or intended to raise awareness or for recreational purposes. This paper will analyse these questions, taking as its starting point the craft and artistic bookbinding workshops of the Imprenta Municipal in Madrid.

The starting point. Tangible and intangible heritage

Craft knowledge and its application within the printing trades can be defined as an intangible cultural heritage. The Convention for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage adopted by UNESCO in October 2003 states:

Article 2 – Definitions

For the purposes of this Convention,
1. ‘intangible cultural heritage’ means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. For the purposes of this Convention, consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development.

  1. The ‘intangible cultural heritage’, as defined in paragraph 1 above, is manifested inter alia in the following domains:
    (a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
    (b) performing arts;
    (c) social practices, rituals and festive events;
    (d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;
    (e) traditional craftsmanship.

Although a literal interpretation of this statement, that has a clear orientation towards ethnographic issues, would suggest that only craft activities are considered to come within the remit of intangible cultural heritage, the declaration also implies that we should consider cultural objects in danger of disappearance for various reasons.

The graphic arts cover a very broad range of specialties that have been developed since the invention of the printing press, more than five centuries ago in Europe. And in the specific case of bookbinding the chronology dates back even further, to the early centuries of our era.

In both cases the developments which have taken place over the centuries have been classified into several main periods. The first, the ‘hand-press period’ ended with the triumph and implementation of the technical advances which came with the industrial revolution, opening a new period which we might call ‘mechanised printing’. This has in turn been overtaken by a new era of ‘digital printing’ which is itself facing a possible future which will be purely digital.

Over the centuries there has been a continuous loss, in heritage terms, of the techniques and crafts that no longer have an economic or functional use and which as a result have been abandoned and have fallen into oblivion.

As a heritage, being intangible and having been lost or facing the risk of disappearing, it seems to me that they fit perfectly with the idea of protection as formulated by the UNESCO Convention.

Having established that craft skills are a part of our cultural heritage, the next step is to define the place which they should occupy in terms of their conservation, exhibition and study. Their natural location is a workshop, and this is an element that must be integrated into the structure of a museum. In my opinion this is not an auxiliary resource as compared with others and therefore should not be considered on a different level from exhibitions or mediation. Rather, workshops should be accorded the same degree of importance and should be considered as being of the same degree of complexity and variety.

Functions and types of workshops in museums

What roles can they play in a museum? We can agree that their overall objective is the conservation or recovery of craft skills, but in what way?

The professional or productive workshop

A workshop dedicated to bookbinding (or to any other specialty) in a museum can be oriented towards production. Bookbinding is still a useful technique for the conservation of bibliographic and documentary heritage. Both private and public institutions have needs to which bookbinding can respond. Quantitatively, a very broad range of books and other documents regularly require treatment by experienced professionals. Such activities offer a model for fully professional workshops using highly skilled bookbinders working in collaboration with restoration workshops.

A typical example is offered by the binding workshops of the Imprenta Municipal, whose evolution deserves a brief review. The Imprenta Municipal is a long-established institution whose roots go back to the second half of the nineteenth century. Although its origins were in typesetting and letterpress printing, its main function as a provider of print services for the City of Madrid soon led to the creation of a bindery. The diversity of these services, along with the growth of the city, allowed it to develop over a long period.

In the first decades of the twentieth century and, especially, after the Civil War in the building where we are now based, binding was highly considered as part of municipal printing. In particular the Imprenta Municipal’s artistic bookbinding workshop brought together several excellent artists and craftsmen. The creative binding activity was carried out alongside more everyday types of work, most of them aimed at conserving the city’s bibliographic heritage. The binding treatment of the rich historical newspaper collections at the Hemeroteca Municipal of Madrid started decades ago and has been expanded to other specialized libraries as well as to the historical archives and libraries of the City’s museums as their collections and conservation needs have grown.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was decided to stop any work that did not have a cultural profile. As a result the main focus of the bindery of the Imprenta Municipal has been directed towards more specialised work. This important activity also allows us to carry out the second objective of the workshop: to keep craft techniques alive through their everyday use. We are in a situation in which a productive workshop has become a museum: a development that has been gradual rather than abrupt. To the extent that it could even be defined as a natural process.

The restoration workshop

At the same time, this clear orientation towards work on bibliographical collections has been complemented by restoration projects involving techniques that have fallen into disuse. In this connection it is worth mentioning an interesting project which is being developed by the Director of the Imprenta Municipal, Francisco Marín, with a team of in-house bookbinders in collaboration with the now-retired master bookbinder Augustine Montemayor. One of the products that the binding workshops of the Imprenta Municipal have produced in a large numbers over the years  has been the so-called register books, or books of ‘notes and commercial accounting’, as they are called in the private sphere. The annual production of these books amounted to several hundred in the early 1990s. With the computerization and modernization of municipal administration, this type of binding decreased before disappearing in the early twenty-first century. This coincided with a generational renewal in the binding workshop of the Imprenta Municipal. The new bookbinders had not learned the binding techniques for this type of work which, as well as having various characteristics which clearly differentiate it from other bookwork, has the particularity of having a very resistant structure, requiring special sewing and backing operations. This project will allow for the maintenance of a type of binding technique which would otherwise fall into oblivion and would be a loss of intangible cultural heritage. With this initiative, we have established a basis for the transmission to future generations of this bookmaking technique which, being historical, is an object for preservation.

A small private workshop

So far we have considered a  workshop focused on our experience in the Imprenta Municipal museum. There may be others with different profiles, according to the techniques they have developed. In other areas, the operations of bookbinding are divided into different ways of handling paper and cardboard such as folders, boxes and binders. Although such applications seem a relatively unimportant part of the history of the graphic arts, they are part of the same heritage as the most splendid bookbindings. Everything comes down to history, and memory, everything must be preserved as a testimony to an ancient trade. How many binding workshops of modest dimensions survived for decades thanks to the workload of lawyers’ and public notaries’ offices? All of them were gradually closed when online legal documents became widely used. But this is all history, or is starting to be, with its place in historical memory. The technical operations and professionals involved are also an intangible heritage. When future historians study aspects of our economy or our society, they will ne better informed if we keep all these items that may seem now to be of little or no relevance.

Educational workshops

This type of workshop is more usual in the museums’ programmes which try to offer content which, as cultural heritage, can be experienced by visitors as an enjoyable activity. This improves the perception of such heritage as offering an added value and a practical utility linked generally to free time, as so as a sign of the quality of life.

In such workshops, visitors are active participants in a sensory and intellectual experience. Getting started in the art of bookbinding is for many people a relaxing activity for both the body and mind – something which a growing number of people are looking for  as our society develops, economically and culturally.

But it is also possible to make distinctions within this kind of workshop which, rather than having a productive or scientific character aimed at the preservation or recovery of intangible heritage, may have a more educational or recreational profile. Three major type of workshop can be distinguished.

  • Children’s workshops oriented towards school groups or children. These are very effective as a means of raising awareness of questions of heritage in future generations.
  • Workshops for adults seeking leisure activities, a resource for free-time activities for sectors of the population that have already acquired a cultural awareness. In recent decades Spain has seen an extraordinary development of bookbinding schools at various levels. It is a social phenomenon which has achieved artistic works of a high level and, above all, has put Spain on a par with artistic bookbinding in Europe as a whole. It has also contributed to raising awareness among a diversity of groups about bookbinding as a cultural and creative activity.
  • Workshops for professionals at a specialized level. These are training workshops in which professionals from the field receive additional training focused on bibliographical heritage. Workshops for librarians, curators, cultural managers, etc.

Workshops outside the museum

Professional workshops play an additional role when they are organised elsewhere than in the museum. Projects that have been developed with the Imprenta Municipal bookbinders have proved to be very satisfactory in this respect. Cultural events such as trade fairs related to books or other subjects provide an opportunity to offer the public something which is not the usual museum fare but which give access to museum content. This kind of access may result in future visits to the museum and so attract new audiences.

The management of workshops as intangible cultural heritage

This is a complex issue because there is no established doctrine which could serve as a guide to developing procedures for the management of this kind of heritage. The difficulties are many and varied, not only from the theoretical point of view, but also due to the state of the trade and the fact that parts of it are in danger of disappearing, with the result that they are naturally sensitive to any adverse circumstances concerning their preservation.

The hand bookbinding craft

The first difficulty which has to be faced is that of the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another. In many cases this process has been broken or weakened to the extent that losses are unrecoverable. Educational programmes, which are usually oriented towards the demands of industry, do not take into consideration specialties that are beyond their utilitarian remit. This is one of the main problems facing the transmission of knowledge: teaching infrastructures are deprived of both the master and the apprentice. The case of craft bookbinding is quite clear in this respect.

Solutions to this problem have sometimes been suggested, usually at a local level and on a temporary basis. An interesting example that might be cited is the project which Madrid City Council developed between the late eighties and early nineties of the last century. At the time, there was clear evidence of the gradual falling into disuse of specialties within the bookbinding trade and of indifference on the part of professional training organisation to maintain them. At the same time, people in Spain were developing an increased awareness of the need to preserve their historical and artistic heritage in parallel with economic growth.

As an alternative, ‘temporary programmes’ were set up to teach craft bookbinding. The City of Madrid’s Imprenta Artesanal, before it took on the form of the present Museum, developed such programmes between 1986 and 1992. Circumstances were favourable at that time, thanks to the existence of a large group of high-quality teachers who could teach still-active techniques to a younger generation. However, of the many students who followed such courses, only a small percentage of them found a place in the profession and were able to save craft heritage. Today they are working at the Imprenta Municipal or in other workshops.

From the methodological point of view, these initiatives combined a theoretical approach with a more traditional system of acquisition of knowledge and skills based on a close relationship between  master and apprentice. Such learning was eminently practical, and its results were extremely effective, the number of practical workshop hours determining the correct assimilation by each student. This traditional method was deemed the most appropriate for the comprehension of knowledge and development of skills transmitted by masters in their daily relationships with students. It constituted a form of permanent evaluation in which the most promising students with the greatest aptitude were able to advance, while those who were less suited or motivated had a tendency to drop out of the programme. The result was extremely positive and we are now enjoying its long-term benefits.

With our current workshops we face a new problem. At the beginning of the century there was a certain generational renewal with the incorporation of new bookbinders who had taken over from those who were retiring. But time has passed since then, and if we do not ensure a regular rhythm of young bookbinders coming into the trade we will find ourselves in a  vulnerable situation again in the near future for intergenerational training. This would be the ideal means to maintain the full effectiveness of our workshops and there can be no doubt that keeping up the master-apprentice relationship in our workshops is the best way to do this.

However, there are many difficulties in developing such a strategy. Our bookbinders are employed by the public sector in which management flexibility is very limited when it comes to the recruitment of new collaborators. With the result that the flow or renewal of people in parallel to learning and development remains rather unsure.

Artistic bookbinding

While the above model is the one which I would consider to be the most appropriate as a means of maintaining rhythm and continuity while at the same time respecting a high level of quality in a workshop with a craft profile, the Imprenta Municipal’s workshop also has other characteristics. Artistic bookbinding is, by definition, the ultimate qualitative goal of the best bookbinders. It is the culmination of a bookbinder’s career and means being a prominent member of the craft community. Artistic bookbinding requires craft skills and knowledge as well as sufficient imagination in order to be able to identify the importance of a work and make it expressive. In other words it requires creativity.

Such circumstances do not always occur together, and it may happen that we define as artists some excellent professionals with a mastery of their technique but without any ability to create artistic work.

On the other hand, an artist in any specialty works more freely outside of any ties of schedules, labour agreements or other limitations on their creative personality. A workshop dependent on a museum, library, or official centre may not be the most appropriate environment for enhancing the creation of works of art, although there have been notable exceptions from our own workshops.

A workshop model that has already been tested in other types of museum is the provision of workspaces in which artists can create. Generally aimed at enhancing the advancement of young creators, they take different forms but are always for a temporary period and limited time, with conditions for an adequate infrastructure and survival through financial aids such as grants. It would seem that this model is perfectly applicable to our artistic workshop whose infrastructure allows for the development of new work and in which the rotation of creators could generate benefits of experience and learning for the other bookbinders on our staff.

Finally, this talk cannot be concluded without paying a simple tribute to all those masters who have gone before us and have left us a legacy, with their works and their knowledge, a heritage that we appreciate more and more as time goes by.