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Printing museums and heritage workshops

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Alan Marshall, president of the Association of European printing museums.

This article first appeared in 2013 under the title Book and printing museums as the introduction to the Gutenberg Jahrbuch‘s series of articles on European printing museums.

The Gutenberg Jahrbuch’s series on printing museums [initiated in 2013] with Lyons Printing Museum and which will presentarticles on, among other museums, the Basler Papiermühle, the Deutsche Buch- und Schriftmuseum, could not come at a better time, for the collections of printing museums and the perspectives which they offer on the role of communication in society have never been more pertinent. What better means than printing museums for putting into perspective the ongoing debate about the future of print culture in the digital age? All the more so because printing museums represent a broad diversity of approaches to the subject. Indeed, one of the most striking features of printing museums is that no two are alike. The very term itself – printing museum – belies the immense variety of structures and collections which we conveniently group together under this convenient but misleadingly simple term. For it covers a multitude of different types of organisation: museums dedicated to printing, typography, books, newspapers, prints and paper; libraries and archives who include as part of their remit the temporary and/or permanent exhibition of documents from their collections; and even a certain number of heritage workshops which combine artistic or bibliophile production with courses, demonstrations and exhibitions aimed at the general public.

The diversity of printing museums is due in part to the multiplicity of forms and uses of print media which have existed over the centuries. Some museums focus on one particular aspect of print media such as books, newspapers, prints or publicity; others concentrate on machines and production techniques or build their collections around a particular historical period, a major historical figure, firm or regional tradition; still others offer a broad overview of print culture.

The diversity of printing museums comes also from the evolution over time of the ways in which museums and libraries have approached their subject. The earliest printing museums tended to concentrate their attention on books and prints, or the heritage of famous printers. In due course newspapers, publicity and printed ephemera came to be considered worthy objects of interest for specialized or general-interest museums. More recently, in line with the evolution of the printing and publishing industries themselves, a new generation of museums has emerged which see print culture through the prism of graphic design.

And just as the printing industry is itself extremely heterogeneous – covering every conceivable type to product from visiting cards and bus tickets to daily newspapers, the Bible and the Ikea catalogue – so printing museums come in all shapes and sizes, from small country printing offices that have been preserved as part of local history, through a wide range of more or less specialized museums, to major international heritage and copyright libraries whose collections have been built up over several centuries.

The evolution of book, printing and other graphic museums, in terms of their size, form and of the messages which they wish to convey, has of course been influenced by advances in historical research and museography. As it has been by the advance of our knowledge of print culture and its role in society, and by the many technological and economic changes which have marked printing, publishing and related industries over the last century or so. The intellectual and industrial conditions for the creation of a printing museum at the end of the 19th century, when the mechanization of printing techniques was reaching its peak, were radically different from those prevailing on the eve of the changeover from letterpress to phototypesetting and electronic image processing, or today when the impact of digital media on print culture is on everyone’s mind.

The evolution of printing museums’ approaches to building, exhibiting and interpreting their collections has also been influenced by the changing role played by printed documents in society. As the book has given way to the periodical press, and a multitude of administrative, commercial and, more generally, information-related uses of print as the principal moving force of the graphic industries, what was commonplace yesterday is now seen as our heritage. Quite recent printing processes, once considered banal by printers, have already taken on an air of mystery as the list of ‘dead media’ grows ever longer. Everyday documents, most of which were quickly consigned to the rubbish bin or buried in archives, have now acquired the status of printed ephemera worthy of the attention not only of social historians (as in the past), but also of design historians.

Printing museums have also evolved in the context of changing attitudes to conservation and according to the vagaries of very down-to-earth factors such as economic cycles and operating budgets. Once upon a time it was acceptable for museums and libraries to exhibit historically valuable and fragile printed documents in over-lit, under-ventilated display cases for years on end. Many still do today, but only under constraint and for purely financial reasons, because ideal conditions of conservation are presently beyond the means of a large number of printing and book museums.

Last but not least, changes in public expectations have had a long-term impact on how printing museums see themselves and want to be seen by their visitors. In the age of multimedia and interactivity, printing museums are under pressure to find new ways of exhibiting their collections and making their displays more accessible and dynamic. In exhibition terms, there is nothing more resistant to exposure than a printed document. Books, newspapers and, more generally, any multi-page document, remain stubbornly silent when placed in a display case, revealing only a fraction of their inherently complex nature.

As exhibitions have become a commonplace and universally appreciated aspect of libraries and archives, both large and small, so printing museums have been able to take advantage of the general increase in curiosity with respect to things graphic and typographic. The rise of desktop publishing and accessible do-it-yourself digital media has provoked increasing interest among non specialists with respect to the origins of everyday document production tasks which they carry out as part of their personal, social or professional activities. Where does type come from and why does it look the way it does? Why do we put pages together the way we do? What makes documents different? Why do some documents transmit their message effortlessly while others remain resolutely impenetrable for the average reader?

Graphic communication has never been so omnipresent in everyday life as it is today, whether in the form of printed products or as an integral part of digital media. Likewise, typography and graphic design have never been as rich, diverse, creative and democratic as they are today. When, in the mid 18th century, Pierre-Simon Fournier wrote his celebrated Manuel typographique utile aux gens de letters & à ceux qui exercent les différentes parties de l’Art de l’Imprimerie he was addressing himself to a tiny, literate elite within French society. Today innumerable books, magazines, computer programme manuals (whether on paper or electronic), web sites and blogs address themselves in every conceivable language to a vast population of computer users whose graphic tools are infinitely more powerful than those of the average – or even well above average – printer of the 19th or 20th centuries. The number of people who ‘exercent les différentes parties de l’Art de l’Imprimerie’ has never been greater; the general public has never been more aware than it is today of what used to be considered the ‘mysteries’ of the Black Art. Above all, printing museums have never had such an opportunity to broaden their appeal and to offer their collections and their vision of the evolution of print culture to an ever more numerous, knowledgeable and curious public.



Other posts  by the same author on the AEPM website


Printing museums. What’s in a name? (March 2018)

Of ships and sails and biscuit tins… Tin printing: an overlooked aspect of printing history (February 2018)

How print became heritage: 150 years of printing museums (May 2017)

Printing museums and heritage workshops (2013)

Learning to live with the 20th century: printing museums in the wake of the digital revolution (2008)