Australian and New Zealand printing museums: the tasks ahead

Guest post from Juergen Wegner, editor of The shadowland newsletter, Eastwood, New South Wales, Australia.
First published in The shadowland newsletter, n° 60, February 2016.

It is already too late and, in any case, I don’t think that our printing museums here will change quickly enough to do any of this. We are in a period of great change—the greatest, I believe, for the past six hundred or so years. Printing has always been not only at the heart of change but itself the engine of change so, in a sense, the agent of its own demise. So it is more of a natural progression rather than the one cataclysmic event. A speeding up of the processes of change. The last phase started about fifty years ago until today little remains of our old printing industries.

Fifty years ago we still had the monumental Government Printing Offices with one in each of the states plus ones nationally for Australia and New Zealand. They could trace their existence back in many cases to the beginnings of European settlement. You could make a case, for example, that the one in New South Wales really was established in 1788 (along with the country!) with the landing of the First Fleet because it already had on board the government printing press for the printing of administrative orders! All were systematically and ruthlessly shut down one after the other with a great loss not only of machinery and equipment but of a unique opportunity to establish a national printing museum (or several smaller ones). The age was less competitive and there was generous government protection of industries. The digital age was still itself a seed. Many of the larger printing establishments had been in existence for a long time and contained a great deal of printing history—machinery and equipment but also printed matter and archives. I remember collecting material in 1981 when Ross Bros. closed. Even then it was already too late, for most of the great Sydney printing houses had either closed or moved out to the suburbs due to changes in the industry. Ross Bros. was the last of the great printers to leave the CBD and the old heart of printing around Sydney’s Sussex Street to downsize and move into the suburbs. (The New South Wales Government Printing Office went in 1989 and in the space of a few weeks was gone). Ross Bros. was a family company which discovered that the building was worth many times their business. It was a big printery which not only filled a large city building (four floors?) but one which ran through to the street behind—so a double block and the size of two buildings. In 1989 this was filled to capacity with old printing machinery and equipment. I remember one whole floor of type cabinets with metal but also wooden type (and was treated to that old printers’ joke—how wood type was loved by printers because it burnt so fiercely in the cold winters). On the ground floor, a folding machine which, from memory, I was told was the largest in Australia. It covered the width of the ground floor to the high ceiling. On ground level out the back (so a fifth half floor?), a complete stereotyping foundry. And so on. The place could have made a museum by itself. But no museum was interest in this material, nor library in its complete archival records whose business papers went back to the 1880s. As far as I remember, the plant was sold off to Papua New Guinea.

Together Australia and New Zealand have something like forty maybe even fifty printing museums. The Association of European Printing Museums use quite a broad concept and so have included in their list of dates of establishment of printing museums, for example, not just printing but paper and type as well. Also, the more recently established sociocultural museums of print (rather than printing) for subjects like posters, advertising and packaging as well historic printeries (printing workshops). So the concept is quite broad and we here in Australia and New Zealand, although our museums are often quite small and even basic by comparison, do have good foundations to build upon. The challenge is… “nothing” is being done. And it is already almost too late, though historic material is still progressively being lost.

Other disciplines have gone and done what was required a long time ago. They have a network, a system and a concept which is lacking in Australian and New Zealand printing museums. No doubt this is true because of the subject itself. I remember my astonishment when I went to enrol at the University of Sydney as an undergraduate only to find that they did not have a course on Australian history (let alone a department or a chair)—I went elsewhere because of this passion of mine for Australian history. So printing history as a field of study has really been a non-subject. I mean, everyone studies archæology. The department there must have been well funded because the university library contained a world class collection of books and especially journals on the subject. And it seemed as if every new book published was bought and added to the collection. And isn’t printing history also industrial archæology? If you can have disciplines such as marine archæology and even combat archæology, why not printing archæology? Printing was one of the largest industrial complexes in Australia and New Zealand but printing is also at the heart of everything we regard as civilization and society. You would think that there would be at least one Department of Printing History at one of our universities. But for some reason, printing history has never been a subject for study here apart from the occasional researcher or academic. And so the subject itself remains a footnote to Australian and New Zealand history, when it is really the main event.

For more on this see my What is to be done—About printing machinery and equipment which appeared in The shadow-land, 32 (2011) and 33 (2011). I start by looking at Agatha Christie and her work in archæology, look at various disciplines and finish with some comments about The detritus of printing as in what needs to be done with regards to the material culture of our printing history. So what should we be looking at today?

  1. Most disciplines, when they have a sufficient number of members and interested individuals, come together for a common purpose. This is not the case with printing history here. In Europe there is the Association of European Printing Museums. Scandinavia has its Grammus or the Sveriges Grafiska Museers Samarbetsråd (Swed., Joint Council for Printing Museums in Sweden). Given the very large number of printing and related museums in Australia and New Zealand and that they, one would think, have some kind of a common purpose, why not something similar here? Do these individual museums and members communicate to each other? There would seem to be enough critical mass for there to be an Australian and New Zealand Association of Printing Museums. This is important for such things as rationalizing activities, the placement of unwanted offers of donations of machinery and equipment, lobbying government bodies and agencies, funding, publicity and promoting of the subject as one of significance, production of a combined newsletter… It’s not as onerous as you would imagine and can really also all be done quite informally in this digital age if a “real” association is too difficult.
  2. Australian and New Zealand’s printing museums tend to collect the basics so that they can demonstrate how “ye olde printing” was done in times past. They do try to collect machinery and equipment but it is really as a means to an end rather than as an “archive” of historic machinery and equipment (due to limited resources). I don’t think that there is any museum in Australian and New Zealand today that could do this—apart from the generalist national or technological museums which show little interest in the subject. But a start could be made on establishing niche collections of smaller items such as comprehensive collections of composing sticks, quoins, quoin keys, shooting sticks, ink tubs and so on—perhaps even of the smaller bench top platens. Such collections could even already exist to some extent already. In such a scattered and poorly funded area it would be better for individual museums to specialize. Maybe each take on one or a small number of classes of items to collect and preserve?
  3. A national collection or even a National Printing Museum out here seems unlikely. So, is all lost? In the age of the computer you can create an Ersatz national collection of printing machinery and equipment online. Going back to the subject of archæology, the people working in this discipline have put online a resource of the vases of classical antiquity called the Corpus vasorum antiquorum. This is an online database which shows one hundred thousand [sic] vases from classical antiquity with accompanying texts. So why isn’t there a Corpus for printing machinery?! Internationally, but it could also be done here just for Australian and New Zealand holdings. Internationally, country by country. Museums could send images and a brief outline of descriptive text (content to be determined but to include dimensions, manufacturer and brief history, name, number and make, provenance, condition). This could be put online as a publicly accessible database for Australian and New Zealand’s material culture of print.
  4. And why isn’t there even a website which lists all of Australian and New Zealand’s printing and related museums. I do know of David Bolton’s website (my details here are still in house) which should be commended for including machinery and equipment held but I mean something which has a more formal content with more details than a spreadsheet. And done as part of the national printing museums website.
  5. But let’s not forget libraries. Books are not just texts but they are also in a very fundamental way the archæology of print. So there should also be somewhere in Australian and New Zealand (one in each) a collection which looks at the book as artefact. Not rare books. Not early printed books and incunabula. Not even modern firsts and private and fine printing. But a special collection of common modern books in “collector’s condition” which illustrate the extraordinary variety of printed matter for its look—its thingness. Not just some examples of books such as the Penguins, the Insel Bücherei or Fabers but even things like a trade manual, a railway timetable and a telephone directory as being representative of the passing age of print. (And you’d be surprised at the amount of mastery that goes into something like a railway timetable)!
  6. And especially of the industry and trade literature of the printing and related industries such as the wonderful special collections on printing and the book trade held by the Bijzondere Collecties at the Universiteitsbibliotheek Amsterdam. They have about a half dozen of these magnificent special collections on the book and print alone including the world famous Collecties Letterproeven (Dut., Type Specimen Collections) and the Documentatie over Grafische Machines (Dut., Documentation on Printing Machines). The latter includes not only technical ephemera but books such as manuals as well. No-one in Australia and New Zealand has ever systematically collected such material (apart from the Shadowland project here) and, of course, the time for collecting this material is way past. But there still ought to be some special collection somewhere here in Australia (and one for New Zealand) of this kind of material as part of a broader printing history special collection—before it all disappears.

Bonne chance!


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