Publications / Focus on printing museums

An Australian national printing press ‘museum’?

Reflections on the notion of a 'national printing museum' and the chances of such a thing ever coming into being. The context is that of Australia, but the questions that Jürgen Wegner raises are universal.

From our Australian correspondent Jürgen Wegner, editor of The Shadowland newsletter, Eastwood, New South Wales, Australia. First published in The shadowland newsletter, n° 112, July 2020.

A prominent opening statement in bold in the virtual flyer relating to fundraising at the Penrith Museum of Printing via the sale of 3D printed copies of presses in their collection is about plans to ‘grow into a National Printing Museum for Australia [note the caps—JW], with extensions into the cultural part of the Black Art of Printing, by teaching new artist generations who [i.e. how] to print’. The Penrith Museum of Printing was set up by Alan Connell in 2001—so it is about to celebrate its own twenty years of history—with the aims of creating a printing museum which would show people a small commercial printery as it would have operated in the 1940s. Which, I believe, is still the aim of the museum today. The lack of space would also be a problem for creating a ‘national printing museum’ here in Penrith. I also take issue with the need for every printing museum and every bibliographical press to now turn itself into just another print-makers’ workshop. Has this anything to do with printing, really?!

It’s not a question of: Is this the best we can do? Or even necessity. Rather, a question of how little we have collected of our printing history. And less on display. You only need to go into any of our major museums—even our major science and technology museums—to see how little there is on printing anywhere in this country. Most museums have nothing or almost nothing relating to printing on display. Even when they do hold considerable treasures in this area themselves. Here in Sydney, our science and technology museum—called the Powerhouse Museum after its site—does have a significant collection on printing. All I can remember seeing on display there some years ago was a large Chandler & Price jobbing platen, but in the section called the Age of Steam!

The Powerhouse is the subject of some controversy at the moment. Cynics see its move to the Western suburbs of Sydney as a way for the Government to sell off the extremely valuable site to high rise property developers. Optimists, that it will give more space and new life to the collections. A very interesting article which appeared recently in the Sydney Morning Herald (see below for details) has one of their top managers arguing this. He makes a very valid point: ‘Many visitors come once as a child, then once as a parent and then as a grandparent. It simply has not inspired regular return visits’. What is there to inspire us in our museums?! I remember going with my father to the old Powerhouse when it was still the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in that tiny building which is now a part of Sydney TAFE admin. What a treasure trove of objects of all kinds. What a marvel for a young child. Even though there was so little space and many of the items on display were often only small models. Same for the Australian Museum. Few readers will be of an age to remember the remarkable museums that were.

What we have lost in the meantime is the ability to wonder. What we have gained is a kind of entertainment and games venue, mostly aimed at children. Where does the history of the past fit into all this? Why, as an adult, would I bother going to a museum? But how do you collect a representative—let alone comprehensive—account of the past through objects when you constantly have to fulfill your obligations to be ‘relevant’ and popular with the lowest common denominator, the masses? I was talking about this to one of the managers at the national museum in Wellington called Te Papa and mentioned one of the worst—to my mind—examples of a modern museum, our own Museum Victoria building. I was not surprised to learn that it was designed by the same people that had designed that awful Te Papa building. No doubt winning endless architectural awards for its innovation in design. But have you ever seen so much wasted space? And what better model to make sure that people never valued the objects of the past. I wonder if this is also going to be the fate of the new Powerhouse. After an international competition for the most progressive and advanced thinking in museum architecture, we will be getting the same old same old. The museum as entertainment venue.

This and my current work on the names of printing presses led me to think about the nature and role of our printing museums. The only one that came anywhere near to a national
printing museum was, of course, the Melbourne Museum of Printing! Could Penrith ever even attempt such a project? Let me just expand on printing presses for a moment. I have always been interested in the language of print and so my in-progress catalogue of printing presses is not a catalogue of printing presses at all. But a catalogue of printing press names. The language of machinery. I have excluded a very great many printing presses which were known just by the names of their manufacturer, their functionality or just by a code. But even just a so reduced list of so-called valid names has without much difficulty grown into almost seven hundred names—and sourced just from the few reference books I have next to me here. You also need to remember that most of these presses were manufactured over time, were revised and improved, were produced by various different manufacturers and even, often from the first instance, available in many versions. A few. A half dozen. Even ten or so. Which means that the list should really be a list of several thousand distinct printing presses. How many thousands of different printing presses might there have been overall—versions, improved models? Not all in Australia, of course, but our printing museums still do seem a tad unrepresentative even of the culture of print in Australia.

Australia was only ever a small and remote place. Which is not the same as saying that its printing history is uninteresting or unimportant. Quite the opposite, actually. I remember reading one account of a printer looking to go to where the grass was greener in a destroyed post-war Germany. He decided to emigrate to—I think it was—Melbourne. His comments are recorded in one of the issues of the German printers’ trade journals, the Druckspiegel. He recounts how he found Australia’s printeries to be virtual working printing museums. Just how ‘backward’ were we as a nation of printers? Printing presses and related machinery and equipment was sourced from Home, i.e. the UK, but also the US. But it is not uncommon to find more unusual items. Krause printing presses are quite common out here and the Australian trade journals of the early part of the twentieth century are full of advertisements for German printing machinery and equipment. Were any sold? The RBA Museum, for example, has a fine heavy-duty Phoenix on public display manufactured by Schelter & Giesecke in Leipzig. Australian printers didn’t just go and visit Chicago and London but also Germany.

Part of the challenge is that so little survives because we never had a culture which collected print. How can you know what was out here when printing presses were routinely scrapped? I am very fortunate in having quite a bit of documentation on the vast printing and related machinery industry of the old Communist East Germany—the German Democratic Republic or GDR for short. I was amazed at the effort their companies put into exporting their machinery and equipment. No doubt the need for hard currency from the West but export also to the less prosperous Socialist countries around the world. Much is recorded in their publications about sales of printing and related machinery to Australia and New Zealand. And so, while our printing and related machinery corpus is solidly British to our boot straps, as well as American there nevertheless was quite a bit of more unusual material that was out here as well. Tell me, which Australian or New Zealand printing museum has a Planeta in storage? Let alone on display?

So, how well are these seven hundred or so printing presses represented in Australia’s printing museums? Remember that, if I were to include presses which don’t have ‘proper’ names, my list would be of perhaps two thousand distinct printing presses. But this is only my first attempt and one which is limited by the resources that are available way out in the middle of nowhere—and own my lack of time. The list could easily be more. I could and should not reasonably expect Australian museums or printing museums to ever have collected even the tiniest fraction of all the printing presses that were available. After all, we did not really have that many out here. Still, what is the reality of our printing museums?

David Bolton (Alembic Press in London and now also Cowaramup, WA) has done some great work in collating sources of information on letterpress in Australia via his website Letterpress in Australia. It is a very useful piece of work indeed though inevitably limited by the lack of information generally available from printing museums in Australia. It is just extraordinary how few of our printing museums feel it necessary to tell you what they hold. As in trying to get you to visit them. It is extraordinary to see that a major printing museum not only has no website, but that the sum and totality of information available is a paragraph on their local council website. Is it any wonder that our printing museums are in decline! There are a great many of these scattered mainly along the eastern seaboard of Australia. A few have closed in the past few years. Another disturbing trend is that the people in our printing museums see the only way of surviving into the future in turning themselves into a kind of printmakers’ workshop.

One of the valuable sections in Bolton’s website is Printing museums in Australia which describes and gives links to our forty-four so-called printing museums. Bolton does very usefully include bibliographical presses, private presses as well as even some ‘bespoke’ letterpress printers here as well. Thankfully, the related link to the Letterpress equipment in Australian printing museums (see below for details) was recently revised and is now no longer in that awful spreadsheet format. But what dreary and dreadful reading this listing makes. It confirms my suspicions that there is little joy to be had in visiting Australian printing museums because they are all, essentially, the same museum multiplied. Replicas of the small corner ‘mom and pop’ printeries which were so common eighty years ago. I ask you, just how many Albions, Columbians, jobbers, Windmills or Wharfedales do you need to see?! Where are the rest?

I’ve personally seen the small Krause benchtop platen at the Penrith Museum of Printing and, after endless lobbying, it is great to see that this now has pride of place in their splendid new foyer. Incidentally, one of the former volunteers created a massive inventory of holdings, a very small part of which—the larger items—is now made available to the public via their website. As far as I know, the Penrith Museum of Printing is the most active of the lot—and a notable exception to the rule. Bolton does also list a few interesting presses: a Connell Vertical, Holmes Vertical, Inge & Son stop cylinder, Kluge, Mailander, Main flatbed, Olwesdale?, Ruthven, Squintanis, Swift and, of course, the Ulverstonian. But that’s about it. Overall, our printing museum collections are… dull.

Why doesn’t just one of our printing museums have examples of the many printing presses manufactured right here in Australia? Such as the B.J. Ball’s Ballara? (Maybe one does but keeps the fact secret)? And there are many others. Do we really need forty-four letterpress printing museums in Australia? Why don’t we have even the one printing museum called the Australian Museum of Small Offset Printing, considering what a major, diverse industry small offset was in Australia? Or a museum of phototypesetting. A museum of type and typography. A part of printing is also paper converting as in you have a large sheet or a roll of printing paper or newly printed matter which you need to ‘convert’ into useable form. Think cutting (guillotines), creasing, folding. We should also have a bookbinding museum which is not at all about hand binding and designer bindings but stitching and casing-in machines. About blocking presses. Foil printing. The road that Australian printing museums have chosen would seem to my mind to be the road to extinction.

An Australian Paper Museum? Museum Victoria now has one of the most significant items from the over two hundred years’ history of the Australian printing and related industries: the scale model paper machine that was instrumental in showing that papermaking from Australian hard-woods could be developed into a viable industry. From which one of our largest manufacturing industries—papermaking—grew. Manufacturing? Australia?! In Europe, such scale model paper machines are commonly used to demonstrate publicly how paper is made. But here…? Remember that the manufacture of paper in Australia also goes back over two hundred years. There have been at least forty-five paper mills. And I have myself identified over one hundred and thirty paper merchants as in large companies dealing in the sale and distribution of commercial printing papers right here in Australia. Where is our Australian National Museum of Paper?

The idea behind my catalogue of printing press names is to also provide some kind of overview of what there was and what is where. If I had a printing museum in Dubbo, I would be carting my Albions and Columbians to the local dump! Do we really need another Columbian on public display? And if we do, what does this add to our printing history? Australian printing museums should be getting rid of their Albions, Columbians, Arabs, C&Ps, Adanas and the like and replacing them with other and more interesting printing presses. Printing presses which were available here but which no-one has bothered to collect. Well, if they still exist.

I also think that creating an Australian National Printing Museum is a dream—given the way in which Economic Fundamentalism has captured the popular imagination in this country. Certainly, a small regional museum will never pull that off. Michael Isaacsen (Melbourne Museum of Printing) tried that one—and spectacularly failed. Despite a lifetime’s work and going through several fortunes. The only printing museum in Australia and New Zealand which may be a contender is the Printing Museum Inc. outside of Wellington—provided it gets a proper building and some realistic funding. Imagine going there to see a Cossar printing!!!!! But this will never happen. Coming from the world of libraries, I have seen similar dreams come and vanish like a puff of smoke. But libraries were innovative and made the best of the less and less they were given. They developed the concept of a distributed national collection. The ‘Australian National Library’ was not to be that splendid concept, the National Library of Australia in Canberra (endless funding cuts). But the ‘Australian National Library’ would be the sum total of all the books held by Australia’s research libraries, connected and made accessible via computer technology.

Cannot the same be done with our ‘Australian National Printing Museum’? All it needs is for some co-operative action. People to come together and create a website on which all of Australia’s printing presses and related machinery and equipment are described. In great detail down to the make, model, manufacturer, individual manufacturer’s number,
image… and let’s not forget provenance. The outcome might be surprising. And we could then dump a lot of what is duplicated by our printing museums in favour of more important items which need preserving as part of our national printing heritage.

Postscript: How bizarre is bizarre? A few days after the manager of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences wrote in the Sydney morning herald in glowing terms of the benefits of selling the city asset and moving West, the State Government announces that they will be keeping the site. All plans scrapped. But that Western Sydney will still go ahead as well. I don’t remember any reason given. Falling interest by property speculators? Someone pulled out of the deal? But, by the sound of it, the best of both worlds. The Powerhouse will remain just off the CBD with the new museum in Parramatta to provide additional display space.

And about time. It is not as if Australia or New South Wales or Sydney lacked in printing history! The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences has some fine holdings in this area and so, let’s hope that more of these items will now be on display. Not as entertainment but to give us all a better understanding as to the wealth of our material culture and history. And let’s hope also that our institutions will start collecting in earnest what remains.


[Header illustration courtesy of the Musée de l’imprimerie et de la communication graphique, Lyon, France. Original drawing for the letterhead of an industrial firm. Micg Inv 4721, collection Ancellin.]