Publications / Why do we make printing museums?

Pourquoi faire musée ?

(In English)

Stefan Soltek
Chair, AEPM

Greetings and and a couple of personal remarks

Good morning, dear Mr. Maury, dear Mr. Providence, dear members of AEPM, ladies and gentlemen….

Welcome to this unique place, the Atelier-musée de l’imprimerie (A-Mi) with its unique collection, with its equally unique design which shows printing as a technical process while at the same time dealing with the book in all its facets from the most diverse fields of knowledge and fiction.There could be no better place for the AEPM to meet than here in Malesherbes.

As young as it is unique, this museum—founded by the printing industrialist Jean-Paul Maury and directed by Jean-Marc Providence—offers a spectacular fund to strengthen the belief  that printing has always been, and remains, an achievement of any civilisational discourse, whether we are talking about the distant or more recent history of printing words and images. Printing, which according to an eminent Swiss art historian means ‘the imprinting of an idea on paper’, and for Jean-Paul Maury is ‘une simple histoire de passion’, makes it possible for thoughts, convictions and creations to be manifested and disseminated, disclosed, received, analysed and multiplied, aestheticised and criticised, both literally and figuratively. Indeed, how else but through print would it be possible to sustain exchanges that can be trusted to make the processes of ascertaining, recording and discussing reliable beyond the ephemerality of modern social media. Reliable as a basis for debate that builds on its past in order to be able to exist in tomorrow.

By meeting in the AMI, a key commitment of AEPM is significantly reaffirmed. Our association is about the breadth of printing. Naturally it is about technology. The automatic book press, part of which features in the AMI’s permanent exhibition was able to produce a paperback book in its entirety in a single pass , and is an example of how technological innovation is captures in the extraordinary diversity of printing presses. It also touches immediately on the keyword: book. The AMI celebrates the book in an examplary way reveals its all-encompassing claim to convey information.

This is bindingly underlined in the way the printing process and printed products stand side by side, as they do in the missions of the AEPM.

Having said that, everything seems to be in order. For we find ourselves in the perfect place to pose the question: why a museum? And how can it be conceived today for tomorrow. Our speakers will make this clear. And initiate conversations about it.

Allow me to make a few remarks from my personal point of view, after many years working in museums. I am a museum person. I grew up in a prominent museum city, Cologne. With parents who had fine art in their blood. My mother’s father collected medieval sculptures that were unfortunately lost in the war. My mother was a founding member of an association that organised public tours of Cologne’s museums. My father, as a boy with less money behind him, collected art postcards in his youth, mainly of paintings, and arranged them into small exhibitions in his room. Going to the museum was a core part of life in free time. A family meeting place. For parents’ round birthdays, each child prepared a painting and gave a talk on it. This was how we guided ourselves through one museum and another. Time to see, to be visually addressed, to compare one work to another, to feel more or less at home in the museum spaces. When I was studying art history, I worked for museums and galleries during my free time. I went to New York with almost no contact and asked for a student job at the Museum of Modern Art. And I got it. From 2002 to 2021, I had the privilege of running the Klingspor Museum.  I never asked myself the question: why a museum? But the question was: for whom should the museum be? Should, or can, encounters with it multiply. And it seems almost superfluous to add that there is no such thing as a museum, but only and, wonderfully, museums in the plural. Each unique in its style and background, and in the individuality of the attitudes and decisions of people who run them.

What am I trying to say? Simply that ideally it is the multitude of individuals whose own desires for art, for applied art, for knowledge that are visualised and which form the basis for the establishment of a museum. That the question ‘why make a museum?’ is in proportion to the statement that the museum is not so much made as it has been apparent, that it is there, and that it remains.

With an extraordinary range of difference approaches depending on origin and content, size and roots in this or that environment. What,quite practically, connects most of them is that they are as latently needy as they are latently undersupplied. They are, mostly not privately, attached to an administration to which they mean offices rather than places of value.

As long as I lived in Cologne, I witnessed the rebuilding and refurnishing of museums. None of them was spared. I think I can summarise what happened: all of them have become larger, lighter, more permeable, more eloquent. As to whether they have become more forceful with their collection, more effective in reaching the viewer, I don’t know. But I allow myself the question. And this against the backdrop, important to me, of a visitor base that is increasingly programmed instead of encouraging independent exploration by the individual.

What is the topic today?

  1. Museums are a striking testing ground when it comes to the question of how a society should develop and remain untroubled by catastrophes involving the destruction of people, buildings and objects. A question that has a dramatic additional aspect these days. Similar to archives and libraries, this development of the last decades, as it applies to Europe, makes demands on space and personnel and infrastructure for the further development of collections. So will we continue to collect as a matter of course? Will we make this a public appointment?
  2. Should ‘collection’ continue to be a criterion at all? Beyond the question of space and manpower? Does our life retain the perspective of storage?
  3. Or should museums do something completely different that will make them more relevant to the public?
  4. And o museums have to be publicly relevant? And what does that mean? Better: how much resonance is considered politically relevant?

One thing is certain: museums have their fair share of difficulties. And just when, in retrospect, they might have had it easier had they remained largely in what they were—containers for storage—instead of storing, they wanted to make a fuss about themselves. Was that wise? Probably yes and no.

Consequently, it would be good to handle the memory of one’s own history carefully. Not to want to fix and perpetuate a plot along the lines of ‘Once upon a time there was a museum’. But rather to understand this plot of ‘yesterday’ as fractal and questionable and to carefully and circumspectly explore one’s own present and future with an attitude of ‘approaching’.

In this sense, I find a convincing approach in the question: Pourquoi faire Museé?

I  did not remain in the big museum life of Cologne for a long time. Rather, in the much smaller city of Offenbach I have tried for years to open up the Klingspor Museum für Buch- und Schriftkunst in order to make more people, as supporters of the museum, also its beneficiaries. And in particular to win over a social class that was much less likely than my parents to want to have and live in a museum. This is not about numbers, about having more visitors and more income, but about a cultural-ethical commitment. The expansion of the museum must aim to integrate the pluralistic society more strongly. And isn’t it precisely here that museums with a technical-historical character have a special chance? Because they speak a language that is not based on the history and literature of one cultural area or another, but bring the same matter of a machine function and aesthetics. And thus the power of connecting people from diverse backgrounds.

In a letter to his friend Zelter, Goethe writes: God bless copper, printing and every other multiplying means, so that what is good once can not perish again.

He thus provided a beautiful template for the idea of a museum of communication technology. I am confident that this path will continue—beyond pandemics and wars—however steep the path may become. The important thing is not to prejudge anything. Or, to paraphrase Ukrainian influencer Anastasija Shandra: life is not a foggy future or memories of the past, but: what is happening to you right now (Instagram post 21.4.22).

I am sure that the following lectures will deal in a multi-faceted way with the phenomenon of the museum that is so dear to all of us. And provide approaches to new perspectives.

I sincerely thank the people in charge of the AMI for opening its doors to us for our conference, our curiosity and our questions, with so much potential to surprise us.