Print History: Printing Museums in India - A clarion call
The printing history series in PrintWeek enters its seventh year with this anniversary issue. One of the objectives of this series is to evoke a sense of history in the Indian print industry and inspire it to preserve, protect and share its collective print heritage with present and future generations. What better way to do so than by setting up printing museums?
15 Jun 2021 | By Murali Ranganathan
Printing made a relatively late entry into India in comparison to many other countries in Asia. China can lay claim to being the motherland of printing, both from blocks and type manufactured from wood, clay or metal. The history of Chinese paper and printing can be traced over two thousand years and details about the print technology and ancient printed artefacts are abundantly in existence today.
From China, printing moved to Japan and Korea which also have a long and illustrious tradition of printing. By the fourteenth century, the technology had moved westward to Europe where it must have had a long gestation period before being refined and perfected into what is now known as mechanical letterpress printing by Gutenberg and his contemporaries in the 1440s.
After rapidly spreading throughout Europe, printing accidentally reached India in 1556 when a printing press intended for Ethiopia providentially reached Goa. However, it took another two centuries for print to make its presence felt in India and even longer for it to spread across the country.
In the nineteenth century, India emerged as one of the largest print markets in the world and it continues to retain that status in the twenty-first century. The colonial cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras emerged as print capitals while numerous other cities such as Delhi, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, and Pune also developed substantial print infrastructure. For the last two hundred years and more, print has permeated every aspect of life and this is certainly worth celebrating and cherishing.
Global Printing Museums
Printing museums come in all shapes and sizes. And with a range of missions and visions. Some of them focus on the technology behind print, others on the printed object. Some aspire to be national museums like the National Print Museum of Ireland (www.nationalprintmuseum.ie). Others shine the spotlight on the work of one individual, for example the Bodoni Museum which is devoted to the works of the Italian typographer Giambattista Bodoni (www.museobodoniano.com). And yet others focus on a publishing house, for example the Oxford University Press Museum.
Quite a few museums have original machines or reproductions in working condition. Some are spread across a room or two while there are others with a whole campus devoted to them. Some of them have been in existence for a century and longer. Some, like the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz (www.gutenberg-museum.de), which was set up in 1900 with contributions from printers, publishers and machinery manufacturers have gone through multiple incarnations and have reoriented themselves for the twenty-first century. Quite a few museums have been set up in the last couple of decades as the importance of print heritage have been more broadly recognised.
How did these museums originate? Some of them are projects of national pride like the China Printing Museum at Beijing (www.printingmuseum.cn) which was opened in 1996 under the auspices of the Chinese government. It celebrates print as one of the four great inventions made in ancient China and chronicles the story of its development over thousands of years. On a much smaller scale is the municipal Cheongju Early Printing Museum in Korea which celebrates the earliest discovered book to be printed using movable metal types in 1377.
It is mainly printers who have invested in protecting and sharing their print heritage all over the world . They could be ambitious projects conceived by large print conglomerates like Toppan of Japan (see Case Study 1) or small family-owned presses (see Case Study 3) showcasing print heritage. Or it could be the passion project of an individual which metamorphoses into a public-private partnership (see Case Study 2).
The number of printing museums in Europe is so numerous that an Association of European Printing Museums has been formed to create an international printing heritage network (www.aepm.eu). Besides there are numerous historical societies which are solely focussed on print history and culture such as the Printing Historical Society in the UK, the International Gutenberg Society, and the American Printing History Association.
The Indian scenario
Museums enjoy a mixed reputation in India. On one hand, India’s cultural and historical heritage going back to five thousand years are housed in them. But on the other hand, they are generally considered rather downbeat and relegated as places to be visited by children on school trips. Museums associated with technology and science are not only few in number but also receive the short shrift from visitors.
If one were to survey the present scenario in India with respect to printing museums, one is bound to be disappointed. Museums which could be classified as printing museums would hardly number more than three. And they would fall extremely short when measured against international standards. The Odisha Printing Museum associated with the Government Press in Cuttack is perhaps the only museum in India which is exclusively devoted to printing and has a comprehensive collection of machinery which cover all aspects of printing from the era of the letterpress to the era of phototypesetting.
When the press was being modernized, the then superintendent salvaged all the old machines instead of selling them as scrap. A dedicated building has been set aside for the museum which was inaugurated in 2014. However, none of the machines are in working condition and the museum is not visitor-friendly.
Christian missions were the major centres of print in the early days and introduced the art of printing to many areas in India. At the Danish Mission at Tharangambadi or Tranquebar, a printing press was established by Bartholomew Ziegenbalg in 1712 with Tamil and Portuguese typefaces procured from Halle in Germany. The Baptist Mission Press at Serampore near Calcutta was founded in 1799 by the missionary William Carey. Other mission presses include the American Mission Press (1817) at Mumbai, the Cuttack Mission Press (1837) and the Basel Mission Press at Mangalore (1841). In recent years, efforts have been made to recover the print heritage of these mission presses.
The Ziegenbalg House, a 300-year-old edifice at Tranquebar, has recently been renovated and efforts are being made to showcase the print heritage of the Mission. While much of the funding for the renovation was provided by the German Federal Foreign Office, donations were also received from Madras Printers and Lithographers Association, the All India Federation of Master Printers, and the Salem District Offset Printers Association. The Basel Mission initiated efforts to set up a printing museum in Mangalore in 2016. Though much of the physical infrastructure survives to this day at Serampore, a large part of the print heritage has been lost. There is no permanent display of printing history.
Some of the matrices for the typefaces designed for the Serampore Mission Press by Panchanan Karmakar and his son-in-law, Manohar Karmakar have been preserved by the family to this day and are occasionally lent to Serampore for exhibition. Since most of the efforts that have been undertaken under the auspices of the mission presses are not led by experts or practitioners of the print industry or by print historians, the showcasing of the print heritage and technology does not reach the potential it could have.
Quite a few generalist museums in India have print-related exhibits. The Goa State Museum in Panaji has a section on printing history which attempts to trace the five-centuries long history of printing in that state. The Ahmednagar Museum has the original wooden printing press which was used to print that city’s first newspaper Vrutta Vaibhav (founded in 1855).
The museums in Pondicherry and Chandannagar, both of which were French possessions, have a token printing press on display. A lithographic stone here, a nineteenth century newspaper there, a few types that have been salvaged from the furnace, a sheaf of old printed material like labels and posters, is all that one can encounter in the few museums that are there in India.
Perhaps the largest collection of print machinery and memorabilia in India is in the hands of the members of the print fraternity. Thousands of printers, both large and small, across the length and breadth of India have saved, collected, or acquired items which take us back to the history of print. While some may have a handful of artefacts, there are others whose collection numbers in the hundreds. Many of these items are on display in their premises. Neither are these collections accessible to the general public nor can they be called museums.
Nowhere is the story of print in India explored, nowhere are the print practitioners of yesteryear celebrated, and nowhere are visitors able to understand the overarching role print plays in everyday life.
A Vision for Printing Museums
How should a vision for printing museums in India be developed? How many of them does India need? Where will the funds needed for the implementing the vision come from? How will the real estate needed for such ventures be acquired? Should we expect local governments to take the lead? Or should it be print associations? Or printing presses and publishing houses? Or individuals with a passion for print? Print historians?
It is evident that much of initiation and planning has to be done by print practitioners and print enthusiasts.
They are not only aware of the technology and processes which were once in use but are also best positioned to track down valuable print-related material and machinery which will form the core of any printing museum. Every city which has been a print centre would afford enough material for a printing museum and India can easily count a dozen such cities.
A preliminary road-map for printing museums would involve considerations about the extent of its activities, funding sources, collection of exhibits, and other practicalities. See Box for further details. The year 2022 marks the bicentenary of Bombay Samachar, the longest continually published newspaper in Asia. And there would be numerous such landmarks in the coming years. It would be fitting that efforts are made to initiate printing museums to mark these occasions.