Print History: Celebrating the Written Word - Museum of Typography in Greece

The story of a printing museum set up by a regional newspaper in Greece which celebrates the ancient tradition of writing and typography

24 Sep 2021 | By Murali Ranganathan

The country of Greece, located in the south-eastern corner of Europe, is a nation with thousands of islands, large and small, dotting the seas which surround the mainland. With a coastline twice as long as India’s though twenty-five times smaller in area, Greece has a vibrant maritime culture driven by its islands. The long history of Greece rivals those of other ancient cultures such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and India. With iconic figures from Alexander and Aristotle to Plato and Ptolemy, the idea of Greek civilization continues to dominate the age of antiquities.

However, the discovery of the Minoan civilization in the 1890s overshadowed the Greek civilization for many reasons. Based on the island of Crete, the largest island in Greece, it was perhaps the first advanced civilization in Europe, pre-dating mainland Greece by more than a thousand years. Its antiquity could be traced back to 2700 BCE. It prospered for over a 1300 years before a combination of natural disasters and conquest from the Greek mainland led to its collapse around 1420 BCE. Perhaps the most important discovery during the excavation of the ancient remains of Crete were large numbers of clay tablets which were inscribed in two scripts. They were soon recognized as the oldest writing systems in Europe and named Linear A and Linear B. While the script Linear B was eventually deciphered after fifty years of study by numerous scholars and found to be written in a very early form of the Greek language, Linear A, like the Indus Valley seals, is still an uncracked code.

Phaistos Disc, circa 1700 BCE

The first example of typography which has so far been discovered is also from the island of Crete. It is a circular disc which has been dated to around 1700 BCE when the Minoan civilization was at its peak. About 15 cm in diameter and 1 cm thick, the Phaistos Disc is made of fired clay and is imprinted with symbols or characters arranged in a spiral pattern on both sides. Punches on which the symbols have been carved or cast have been impressed on the soft clay to create an indentation. The same punch has been used to create a symbol multiple times on the disc thus making it one of the earliest representations of typography. From the perspective of printing and typography, the discovery of the Phaistos Disc in Crete is the most significant. It is currently in the Archaeological Museum at Heraklion, the capital city of Crete.

Clay Tablet inscribed with Linear B script, circa 1300 BCE

Jumping four thousand years ahead, the island of Crete continues to celebrate its primacy in two areas related to print – the art of writing and the science of typography – by hosting the only major printing museum in Greece. Welcome to the Museum of Typography in Chania, Crete!

From concept to reality
The story of the Museum of Typography is intimately linked to the life of Yannis Garedakis. Circumstances forced him to join a news room in Athens fairly early in his life. He then joined a newspaper published from the island of Crete. Garedakis recalls his initial days in the world of printing in the early 1960s:

I was still a young man when I first entered the field of the regional press, working for the historical newspaper Hania Paratiritis... There I was, all of a sudden, inside a basement, cooped up in a corner, preparing news transcripts – you see, there were no news agencies, no Internet, etc. back then – and making corrections. Across the room, in front of the typesetting benches, typographers assembled the type, letter by letter, composing the text. Standing up for hours, quiet, as if they were attending a sacred ritual, they arranged letters with the composing stick forming sentences, then the galleys with complete texts and finally the pages of the newspaper. Tired but proud at the end of the day. Last touch on their work – to me, it was a kind of caressing of the typographic plate, before the printing started.

After a few years in the world of print and journalism, Garedakis ventured to start his own newspaper, titled the Haniotika Nea (Chania News). Founded in 1967, it was based in the city of Chania (or Hania) which had for long been the capital of Crete until being replaced by Heraklion in 1971. Chania is one of the oldest cities in the world and claims to be continuously inhabited for the last five thousand years and more. The early years were very difficult for the newspaper as it was published when Greece was ruled by a military junta which brooked no opposition. As the years rolled by, hand composing of text gave way to the Linotype and hot-metal composing.

Phototypesetting and digital typesetting followed in quick succession and the newspaper had to constantly upgrade its printing technology. Haniotika Nea is now Greece’s most widely read regional daily newspaper with a physical circulation of 6,000.

Even as he built up the reputation of his newspaper, Yannis Garedakis was conscious of the fact that the world of printing technology was evolving at a rapid pace. Each successive decade saw a few more machines being made redundant. He recalls the motivating factors which spurred him on:

Printers and Linotype operators, working together in dark basements and sheds, were putting up a fight for every form of publication with love and respect towards the lifeless objects of their work. Those typographic objects, printing machines, typographers and operators should not be forgotten. Objects and machines should be maintained, the memory of typographers and operators should be honoured: that was the first thought that came to my mind. The idea for the creation of a Museum of Typography started to spin around my head about three decades ago.

The years passed, and the newspaper blossomed economically thanks to its readers and advertising clients. At that point began the quest in the wonderful world of typography and its people and the journey leading to the foundation of the Museum. Gradually, we started collecting printing press machines and other artifacts connected with the art of typography, a process that led to the birth of the Museum of Typography, run by the newspaper Haniotika Nea. The Museum was inaugurated on May 2005.

The word typography does double service in the Greek language. Not only does it describe the act of composing text, that is, typography, it also means the process of printing. Thus the museum was named ‘Museo Typographia’ in Greek or the Museum of Typography.

Intertype hot-metal typecaster

A Range of Exhibits
Printing was a late entrant to Greece as compared to many other European countries which were the centres of innovation for print. Though books had been printed in Greek from the fifteenth century onwards, printing in Greece itself gathered steam much later. Like India, most of the printing machines were imported from elsewhere. The typefaces which were used to print in Greek had been designed in centres like Venice. It was only in the nineteenth century that Greece began to develop a print culture of its own.

Yannis Garedakis, in partnership with his wife Eleni, began collecting machines from all over Europe which represented all the technologies of printing as it evolved over five centuries. They have a true replica of the printing press which was operated by Gutenberg. Many of the machines were salvaged from their own printing press including an Intertype hot-metal typecaster. Many of the machines are in working condition and visitors are encouraged to operate a select few.

Exhibition on History of Writing

The museum also celebrates Crete as the mother-ground of writing in Europe with a special installation on the ‘history of writing’. Designed by the artist-typographer Antonis Papantonopoulos, the exhibition traces the development of writing from cave art and hieroglyphs to rudimentary scripts and full-fledged writing. The museum has also acquired numerous books printed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which are on display.

According to printing historian Alan Marshall, the Museum of Typography exemplifies how “a private collection [can] become museum thanks to the will, persistence and generosity of two people actively involved in printing and publishing.”

Furthering the cause
The Museum of Typography under its founders, Eleni and Yannis Garedakis and its director, Elia Koumi have been very active in furthering the cause of printing museums around the globe. They have been enthusiastic participants in the Association of European Printing Museums (AEPM) and successfully hosted the AEPM’s annual conference in 2017 in which a case was made “for the importance of museums in general and of printing museums in particular as measures and vectors of intellectual progress, culture and democracy.”

A regional newspaper in Greece with a circulation in the low thousands has managed to build a world class museum focussing on the areas of writing, typography, and printing because of the sustained effort of its proprietors and editors. They have been aided by donations of printing treasures from numerous sources, supported by local government, and recognized as a protecting and nurturing the local heritage and culture. India has thousands of newspapers many of which have a heritage going back to a century and more.

Perhaps a hundred of them have a daily circulation running into lakhs and a few in the millions. One is hopeful that a few of them will step forward to protect the print heritage which has nourished and enriched them.