Printing History is Big and Bright in Texas
Keelin Burrows is the curator of The Printing Museum in Houston. After completing a three-year curatorial fellowship at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in the Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design Department, she applied for and was awarded this curatorial position in 2012.
The museum was founded by commercial printers in the late 1970s. As printing technology was changing rapidly, many printers at that time realized that this history would soon be lost if it were not preserved for future generations. Four commercial printers in particular have been attributed with founding the museum: Raoul Beasley, Vernon P. Hearn, Don Piercy, and J.V. Burnham. This chat with Ms. Burrows looks closer at the museum’s offerings.
What is the role of the museum? What are its goals? The role of the museum is broadly outlined in our mission, which is “to promote, preserve and share the knowledge of printed communication and art as the greatest contributors to the development of the civilized world and the continuing advancement of freedom and literacy.” This has been accomplished through maintaining and displaying our permanent collection, which consists of artifacts and technologies related to the development of printing throughout the centuries; through providing relevant temporary exhibitions that allow museum visitors to engage in new ways of thinking about the history and present moment of printing; and finally through our studio spaces, which enable visitors to learn about traditional skills and methods of printing and the book arts. The board of directors are currently going through a strategic visioning and planning process to reassess the direction and future of the museum.
Are you in touch with, or do you collaborate with, other printing history museums? There are several other printing museums in the nation, such as The International Printing Museum (Carson, CA), Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum (Two Rivers, WI) and The Museum of Printing (Andover, MA). There are also other regional museums dedicated to preserving the history of printing, as well as numerous history and technology museums that explore printing as a field of study. Additionally, there are some nonprofits that focus on preserving and promoting letterpress and the book arts, such as the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts and the Book Arts Center in New York. I am familiar with these institutions and follow their programming. I have begun conversations with individuals at these institutions and will work toward future collaborations. I will attend the American Printing History Association (APHA) conference next week and will work towards building a stronger network amongst professionals in various cross-disciplinary fields of study related to printing.
What is unique to your operation in terms of collections and what you do with them? The museum collection traces the history of printing and communication from early ancient civilization up to the mid-to-late 20th century. Key artifacts, such as the Dharani Scroll, the replica Gutenberg Press and the linotype machine, narrate the story of how printing has enabled major social and cultural changes throughout the centuries. The various printing technologies and inventions brought greater access to information, a questioning of systems of knowledge, reformation, and ushered in new methods for creativity and self-expression. In 2012, a major donation of the Bud C. Hadfield Collection of tabletop and miniature presses was gifted to the museum, which includes significant presses from the Kelsey Manufacturing Company, accompanying patents, a small library, and rare historic type. This collection provides the opportunity for the museum to showcase the rise of the “amateur” and “hobbyist” printer in late 19th- and early 20th-century America.
In addition to artifacts that are displayed and preserved, what is unique about TPM’s collection is that certain objects and presses are used by museum staff, guild members and visitors in the gallery spaces and working studios. This allows for a more interactive environment for learning about printing. The museum provides a “hands-on” or kinesthetic learning experience that incorporates multisensory engagement with visitors. Seeing, touching, smelling and hearing are informational elements that combine together, providing a tactile and immersive environment for learning and exploring.
is there a steady flow of visitors? And what do they come to learn? The Printing Museum has about 10,000 visitors per year, including school (art, history and technology) groups, seniors, artists, graphic designers, professors and scholars. The vast array of visitors have many entry points into the world and history of printing. Zine Fest, Houston Book Fair, temporary exhibitions, workshops, guild participation and museum lectures are just some of the ways that individuals can get involved with our printing community. So many of our visitors are in awe of watching the mechanical process of printing and being able to leave the museum with a printed page (from the Gutenberg Bible or the Declaration of Independence).
This museum is a rabbit warren of galleries. What is your favorite spot? My favorite spot is currently the Raoul Beasley Letterpress Studio. I enjoy being able to peruse the type and operate the presses. While setting and redistributing type is very tedious, it can also be very meditative, providing tangible interaction with the process of making in our increasingly digital world.
What is the future of the museum, and will it take printing into the 21st century? In order to move forward, one must learn from and understand the past. Many of the traditions that carry over into our digital world are due to the histories, technologies and cultural milieus of printing. In our temporary gallery spaces we host a variety of exhibitions that look at present-day print, book, and graphic artists, as well as contemporary trends and technologies. Recent exhibitions include “Contemporary Arabic Graffiti and Lettering: Photographs of a Visual Revolution” (2014), “Russel Maret: Interstices and Intersections or, an Autodidact Comprehends a Cube” (2014) and “Design Now: Houston” (2014-2015). In exploring the contemporary moment of printing, where various disciplines merge together to forge a new direction and future for printing, the museum helps chart the path for print culture in the 21st century.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →