Publications / Safeguarding intangible heritage. Passing on printing techniques to future generations

Preserving heritage-related know-how in so-called ‘living’ museums: the case of the Monotype

Text of a paper given by Robin Boone, former coordinator of the printing department of the Industriemuseum, Ghent, Belgium at the conference of the Association of European Printing Museums, Safeguarding intangible heritage: passing on printing techniques to future generations, held at the Nationaal Museum van de Speelkaart, Turnhout, Belgium, 23-26 May 2019.

Various phases in activating a machine: the case of the Monotype Composition Caster in an active typesetting shop and printing collection, the Museum of Industry in Ghent

When I started working at the Museum of Industry (Industriemuseum, then still called MIAT) back in 2005, the Monotype Composition Caster and Super Caster were two of the most striking pieces in the collection, as it was presented then. They represented the collection’s most recent period, the 20th century. Along with the 19th century collection, with its hand-operated presses and line-casters, they were some of the most important pieces in the exhibit at the time. The origins of the original Monotype Super Caster are unclear. The Monotype composition machine and various accessories came to the collection through Monotype collector and operator John Cornelissen in 2002.

When, in 2010, our previous, much smaller printing department opened its doors, we had counted on the Monotype Composition Caster and the Super Caster being some of the most frequently used machines in our typesetting department. At the last minute, we replaced the machines that were originally on display in the department with two other specimens (a Monotype and a Super Caster), from collector Patrick Goossens. They required significantly less repair than the machines already present in the collection, which went to our storage facility, where they remain today.

A Monotype keyboard was also accepted on long-term loan from Patrick Goossens. It was set up and hooked up to a compressed air installation. Patrick, himself, had been volunteering in the department for years. Gilbert Decorte, a former monotypist for Etablissement Plantin in Brussels, was indispensable to us, as the operator of the renovated interactive exhibit at the time.

In addition to a compliant electrical connection and a new, compliant control panel, the city’s technical services installed a water line and drainage system. As part of the general technical inspection of the department, the Monotype and Super Caster machines were also inspected. A number of safety measures were taken, as recommended/required by the inspection body. Emergency stops were installed, and a safety cover was adapted and placed over the driving belt. One could devote an entire lecture to the problem of rendering this machine with its many moving parts safe (as with any other historical typesetting machine). We should probably count ourselves lucky that the inspection body’s attention was drawn away from the Monotype by more complicated situations in the active department.

The problem of the lead would lead us too far as well. Eventually, a suction system was installed in front of the lead reservoir, as is used in the line-casters. It is still proving useful today.

Operating the Monotype machines

The way things actually unfolded was completely different. Shortly after the new installation was put in place, the systematic loss of the volunteer operators we had at the time, for various reasons – specific to volunteer work – meant that the Monotype and Super Caster were not the machines being run weekly. Rather, the line-casters, Intertype and Linotype, were being operated by a number of volunteers on a very regular basis. The fact that a number of projects could be carried out using the line-casters created a kind of ‘internal competition’, or perhaps one might better say an attention shift to other machines.

In a department like this one in the Museum of Industry, the operators/volunteers are vitally important. Without them, there is no active department, no operational machines, no typesetting or printed matter. By way of comparison, it must be said that the line-casters had always had such a person: namely, volunteer operator Pierre Ryckaert.

For 30 years, Ryckaert had been a volunteer, in combination with an external party – and one of Belgium’s last operational maintenance technicians – Leon Theunis (now a sprightly nonagenarian, whom some of you may know because he visited your museums). All that time, they had kept the line-casters running smoothly, so that they have been running without interruption right up to today.

All of this meant that the Monotype machines did not run much from 2010 to 2018, aside from a couple of projects which were quite spectacular, such as the digital operation of the machine on the occasion of a project with youth press agency Stamp Media during the Ghent Festival (Gentse Feesten) in 2010: young people made news and interviews, which were composed on the spot using the digital interface. This led to two editions of a newspaper being printed in the department.

At Patrick Goossens’s behest, operator Ian Gabb also came over to the museum a couple of times from Great Britain, to help him start up the machine and cast a few things for demonstration purposes.

In the years after 2010, the Monotype Composing Caster, as well as the Super Caster, pretty much went unused. The many other machines, such as the line-casters, and the printing department itself, on the contrary, were bursting with activity. A very wide array of printed matter has been generated there over the past 10 years.

However, in 2017, volunteer Arnould Poelman’s visit to the ‘Stichting Lettergieten’ in the Netherlands and the instruction he received there gave impetus for the revival of the department’s Monotype. His visit was, in part, intended to train at least one person to be an operator, so that we would have one in house once again. Volunteer work, by nature, comes with a number of limitations, if only volunteers’ lack of time. Plus, volunteers cannot support all of the techniques within a collection as broad as that of the Museum of Industry.

A lot of printed matter has been made and is made in our museum, using polymer composition for the illustrations and line-casting for the text. The Ludlow machine was an excellent addition, as well. Perhaps, within a broad, active museum collection, too little attention is paid to the various techniques and machines that all, in some way, compete for attention. Like water, expertise sometimes seeks the path of least resistance, gravitating towards the machine or technique that is most readily accessible at a certain time. So, conscious activation within the museum collection must focus on overcoming this problem as much as possible, based on clearly defined goals, preferably in consultation with everyone involved.


In the context of the Belgian collaborative project “From Lead to Pixel”, in which 5 major Belgian collections collaborated to create a series of graphical exhibitions, and print their first collective brochure together, a new idea arose.

The AEPM’s collaboration and networking at the European level was also applied within Belgium. In 2008, after many visits to our fellow Belgian museums, a Belgian focus group was established, which brought the various museums together on a regular basis. Along with the volunteers task force, we visited our fellow museums in Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia, both public institutions and private collections. Iris Kockelbergh (Plantin Moretus) and Filip Cremers (National Playing Card Museum, Turnhout) added impetus with their idea to realise a big, collective exhibition route. This became the project “From Lead to Pixel: printing (r)evolutions in Belgium”. Another accomplishment is the collective brochure we created with all five museums, across the language border. It rolled off the presses late last year.

In that context, the Maison de l’imprimerie in Thuin and the Museum of Industry in Ghent (both of which house very active, broad collections) decided to work together on a specific machine, namely the Monotype Composition Caster, which needed an extra push in both museums.

Based on the determination that both museums had a number of complementary pieces on hand – for example, in Ghent there was a Monotype, a Super Caster and a keyboard but few if any matrices, and in Thuin there was only a Super Caster and keyboard – we looked at whether we could work together to train an operator, who could once again start working with this machinery. The Flemish and Walloon Governments provided financial support for this.

In Ghent, volunteer Linotypist Clément Mortier proved an ambitious candidate with great interest in demonstrations for the public. A mutual training course was organised at the Imprimerie Nationale in Douai, France early this year (2019). It was a 2-day training course, done together with staff from Thuin. 3 people in total took part in the training.

Once again with outside assistance from Patrick Goossens, we breathed new life into the machine in Ghent. Clément’s first goal is demonstrating the keyboard and caster, but of course we are considering putting it back in production for various projects.


In the period when this machine wasn’t being used much, we were asked whether we oughtn’t to pull the plug on it. We cannot keep everything in working condition. Choices and priorities must be made. After discussing the matter, we reached the conclusion that that would be a shame, given the technical and historic importance of this iconic machine.

What’s more, there is the importance of the Monotype to the museum’s collection. The Monotype is an important transition piece, between an early 20th century collection and the period that followed. We are one of the few museums in Belgium and Europe to find the recent history of the development of the graphical industry important. And we wish to document that, as well, as our redesigned department shows. In that context, this machine is an important ‘stepping stone’ in the continuing story of graphical developments, from 1950 to today.

If this particular case teaches us anything, it’s that a network of people, specialists (by way of training or experience), over time have determined whether or not machines remained operational and continue to do so now. Being responsive to and helping to guide the situation of these volunteers and specialists is crucial for the maintenance of the machines, not only as museum pieces, but also as operational machines. On the other hand, maintaining the machine guarantees that the technical knowledge of this machine’s last operators will continue to be passed on. Therefore, it goes both ways.

In addition to various possible initiatives within the museum itself, like heightened awareness of the processes of technical knowledge transmission and a more conscious organisation of the technical workshop itself, today we still also see the real importance of a network organisation like the AEPM. And it will probably be more important than ever in the future.

I am delivering this presentation as the outgoing coordinator of a department I have had the pleasure of directing for the past 15 years. The subtle interplay between mechanics, human experience, craftsmanship and creativity has brought me unforgettable experiences. And that is also something that (immaterial) graphic heritage can offer to a broader public.