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PRINTING MUSEUMS -- Graphic Arts Get-aways

May 2002

Summer is just around the corner. For many Americans, that means it is time to pack up the kids, fire up the SUV and hit the open road. For those employed in the printing industry, this summer could be the perfect opportunity to learn a little something about the history of printing technology while teaching the younger generation about the graphic arts.

Museums that focus on the history of printing are located all around the country. Some are small displays at local newspapers or printing companies. Others are large-scale museums that take visitors from the earliest days of printed communication up to today's digital world.

"Most of our visitors are not people with printing backgrounds," reveals Sarah McNett, curator at the Museum of Printing History in Houston. "The majority of our visitors come through as group tours—grade school groups, university level groups (which tend to be art/graphic arts students), senior citizen groups and community groups—that also use our meeting space, or host parties or receptions in the museum."

Learn Some History

Walk-in traffic includes some who were, or who had parents who were, in the printing industry. Since the printing industry is so large, many people have a loose connection to it, McNett points out. Most walk-in traffic are families or individuals interested in history, or just a fun, educational experience.

Much of the printing equipment the museum boasts has been donated over the past 20 years, although some has been purchased, then donated, by museum supporters.

McNett lists the museum's most prized pieces to be: An Albion press, circa 1820; a Columbian press, circa 1850; and a 19th century French lithography press. All pieces are operational and demonstrated to visitors.

The Houston-based museum also has a collection of prized printed documents, including a Hykumanto Dharani Scroll block printed in Japan, circa 764-770AD, and many important Texan and Mexican documents/broadsides printed by Samuel Bangs, Mexico's first public printer.

Meanwhile, in North Andover, MA, The Museum of Printing is the result of the efforts of an organization known as the Friends of the Museum of Printing, which was established in 1978.

The Friends were dedicated to founding a printing museum devoted to the graphic arts that would be a legacy for future generations, says Gardner LePoer, executive director.

"Printing history has been poorly documented," LePoer contends. "We hope to alter that."

To help preserve the history of printing, The Museum of Printing collection includes examples of most of the different types of letterpresses made in the 19th and 20th centuries, including both platen and cylinder design presses.

Other printing technologies, such as etching/gravure and offset lithography, are also represented. The museum has a wide variety of typesetting machines from the hot-metal and phototype eras. The museum's library has catalogs, maintenance manuals and influential books that are relevant to various printing topics.

Printing methods of the past are not the only techniques featured at this facility. LePoer notes that the museum has the ability to provide demonstrations on equipment all the way up to the digital printing age. "We really tell the entire story of printing in America," he stresses.

The museum's building, on North Andover Common, was originally built as an industrial history museum in the 1960s by the North Andover Historical Society. It is located in the Boston Navy Yard—part of the Boston National Historic Park—and is now also the home to the National Park Service's regional headquarters, the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) and her museum.

Headed Out West

For museum-goers on the West Coast, The International Printing Museum, in Carson, CA, should quench your thirst for printing history. Established in 1988 by Dave Jacobson and the late Ernie Lindner, the museum takes visitors on a guided tour through its collection of antique printing machines and artifacts covering more than 500 years.

Highlighted on the tour is Ben Franklin's working colonial printing shop, which features the third-oldest, American-made printing press; an old-time country newspaper shop where type was set by hand and printed on the "Grasshopper" cylinder press; a Columbian press, invented in 1813, which is adorned with a golden bald eagle; and a Linotype typesetting machine from 1890 and its then-competitors, the Unitype Machine and Rogers Typograph.

Also, Ben Franklin meets group visitors in the Museum's Heritage Theatre where he helps bring to life his many inventions and discoveries, telling stories of colonial America and his work in helping to found our country.

If you are taking a visit to our nation's capital, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History has "The Hall of Printing and Graphic Arts," which features tools and equipment of the trade, a print shop and post office, circa 1800; a print shop, circa 1865; a newspaper shop, circa the 1880s; and a foundry from the mid-19th century.

The Washington, DC-based museum boasts equipment such as a Rubel offset press from 1905 and an early Harris press. The same area of the hall holds a half-scale model of the Nicolas-Louis Robert papermaking machine, recently built from his drawings of 1800. Modern papermaking machinery is based on this machine's concept.

Also on display is a row of typesetting machines beginning with American inventor Ottmar Merganthaler's second band machine of 1885 and a Blower Linotype of 1890. Both were precursors of his Linotype machine, which revolutionized the printing industry.

Admission fees to many of these museums are minimal, if not free. Getting the next generation of printers interested in the graphic arts industry at an early age will help preserve the craft of printing for future generations—which is priceless.

For More Information on printing museums, visit the Websites listed below.

The International Printing Museum, Carson, CA.

Museum of Printing, North Andover, MA.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, DC.

The Museum of Printing History, Houston.

At The Museum of Printing in North Andover, MA, and other printing museums across the United States, vintage printing equipment is waiting to take visitors back to a time before digital presses or CTP workflows.

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