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Huge rent bill threatens Museum of Printing

Wednesday, 04 April 2018
By James Cryer

Melbourne Museum of Printing (photo: Dmitry Chernysh)

The Melbourne Museum of Printing, arguably the largest and most important repository of printing equipment in the country, is under threat. Last weekend, the Age blew the lid sky-high on an issue which has been festering for years – and which may have no easy answer. The positive response by members of the public reminds us that it DOES affect the printing industry – whether we like it or not.

James Cryer of JDA Print Recruitment.

Far, far away in a distant galaxy located in Melbourne’s West Footscray there exists, rightly or wrongly, and perhaps even inexplicably – the greatest collection of printing equipment (old and new), type-chases, boxes of metal-type and a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of print industry memorabilia.

This bizarre fact was brought to the nation’s attention this past Easter weekend, when Melbourne’s The Age newspaper devoted a large story (two-and-a-half pages and pictures) to the sad fate now befalling this collection. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the landlord is owed a considerable amount of rent, and wishes – putting it bluntly – to chuck the entire contents on the tip.

I only became aware of the problem a month ago when I was asked to explore what options there were for its salvation.

Could it continue, but in a smaller scale? If so, would it retain its role as a teaching institution (it used to hold workshops on letterpress printing)? Should there be a ruthless cull and retain only the old equipment in a static display? But where?

Would a Melbourne-based college (e.g., Holmesglen?) wish to wrap it into their facilities?
Would an historic-themed site such as Sovereign Hill wish to incorporate into their heritage offer?
Would a Victorian museum consider absorbing it – after all, it is a unique collection of historical equipment?
Would an interstate museum consider taking it over – after all, it is, at heart a “national” treasure?

I must say, when I first heard about it – last month – I was overwhelmed by two emotions: guilt and admiration. Admiration for what the owner, Michael Isaachsen has managed to achieve – with apparently, very little help from anyone – be it governments who have stood by and not thrown in a cent – or our own industry, who, for whatever reason, has not more warmly embraced this project.

My admiration is tinged with a sense of guilt, however, that I – a fourth-gen member of the industry, who prides himself on ”knowing” about such things – had not the slightest clue about the size and scale of this collection. (To those uninitiated, visit www.mmop.org.au) – and be blown away by the impressive, multi-faceted range of equipment, memorabilia, not to mention training courses that were on offer).

Putting aside for one moment whether or not Michael is a bit … let’s say … “single-minded” about his collection, we must not forget that an institution (I’m calling it that for good reason) such as this, represents the heart and soul of our industry. It is the ticking grandfather clock in the hallway, which reminds us of where we came from and who we are.

Melbourne Museum of Printing.

It is an art gallery; it’s a working museum; it’s a training college (for everyone from housewives to graphic design students to lovers of letterpress); it’s a workshop, where tinkerers of times past can come and luxuriate in the wonders of yesteryear.

It’s a hallowed hall, housing sacred relics from a bygone era. It cannot be allowed to perish!

One hears of all sorts of bogus ”causes” getting 100s of millions of $$$s of government funding. We may recall the tertiary training-college scam of last year when lazy watchdogs handed out millions of $$$s to fake colleges – no questions asked!

One would like to think the MMOP would stand at the front of any queue in terms of ”worthiness”, if any such application was made.

Even putting aside that it represents an irreplaceable showcase of our industry, it is also a training college, and I would have thought that all governments (Federal and State) having made such a hash of TAFEs, would bend over backwards to help any institution (such as the MMOP) which offers a training component.

It is worthwhile to briefly back-track: what is all the more remarkable is that Michael, the founder/proprietor is NOT from the printing industry. His main occupation was in management roles within the Post Office. Somehow, imbued with a love of letterpress in particular and print in general, he scrimped, scrounged and fossicked around and eventually amassed a sizeable collection of printing equipment – plus Linotypes and other ancillary bits-and-pieces – to the point where he has created a veritable ”museum of printing” right under our noses!!!

MMoP owner Michael Isaachsen shows a visitor a “stop-cylinder” style press, developed around 1870.

I am still struggling to understand how someone – not even from our industry! – could accumulate such an impressive collection of our equipment; machines that faithfully served in our factories, operated by our trained journeymen. Why can’t we now embrace his endeavours enthusiastically, as an extension of our industry?

Are we so heartless or indifferent to these assets, the very engines that drove our industry, and upon which we built our businesses and derived our personal wealth?

Are we still so cold-hearted that we can turn our backs on a cry for help, from someone who has done so much, for so long, with so little thanks … to preserve OUR industry?

Sadly, I don’t know what the answer is. There may be no answer. Apparently, the landlord has padlocked the gates and is threatening blue murder and the local tip is looming large as the likely destination of much of the hardware if something is not done rather urgently.

Maybe a friendly ”deputation” from the printing industry would reassure him that we are prepared to consider some possible action plans.

This is a ”call to arms” to those who are passionate about preserving the print heritage. And while at one level it’s a “Melbourne” problem it is also a national treasure that must not be allowed to be destroyed.

May I make a final point, with all the diplomacy for which I’m renown: not only is it “not just” a Melbourne problem, but now, thanks to The Age blowing the lid sky-high, it’s not only a “print industry” problem – it’s now a “community problem”. And citizens are expressing their hope that something can be done.

I’m not asking the PIAA Board to “kick in” in financial terms, but they must stick their head above the ramparts and declare some moral leadership in this. Boards are increasingly being asked to consider their role within a broader social context, including that of being a good “corporate citizen”.

The printing industry has done very well over many years. It’s now time to return the favour and commit to providing some guidance and support in trying to save this jewel in the crown.

It may not be salvageable – but we can’t stand by and watch. This is a unique opportunity for the printing industry to come out of the shadows and show that it has a conscience – and that any good Board considers the overall well-being of the industry, not just the cash-flow of its members.

If nothing else it could call for a brainstorming session – or call for an expert group to propose options. Maybe even meeting the landlord would help to diffuse the issue. I throw it open to the brain’s trust on how we can help salvage, or at least mitigate the disaster, which appears to be facing this unique collection of OUR memories.

I have been in contact with an Emeritus Professor from Melbourne University’s School of Business, who has agreed to assist in the process of exploring options. I think if enough people express interest we can address the problem collectively rather than in a piecemeal manner. If you are interested let me know and I can put you in touch with this gentleman.

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5 Responses to “Huge rent bill threatens Museum of Printing”

  1. April 04, 2018 at 2:59 pm,

    Andrew
    said:

    Thanks James, I hope that some action will result from your ‘call to arms’. It does seem appropriate that the printing industry steps up to assist in the resolution of this issue. Recent documentaries ‘Linotype the Film’ http://www.linotypefilm.com/ and ‘Graphic Means’ http://www.graphicmeans.com/ would seem to support and demonstrate a need to preserve and document the production processes of the past. I met Michael more than twenty years ago when I worked at Monash University and we took Graphic Design students there for Production technology classes and workshops. I have always had an interest in the collection and helping out in some way, however as mentioned in the article, the scale and nature of the collection made it a daunting proposition. However, apart from a much small and privately run printing museum I recall visiting 20 years ago in Pinnaroo, I think that it is the most significant collection in the country.

  2. April 04, 2018 at 11:26 pm,

    Michael Hall
    said:

    Thanks James for the article on the plight of the Melbourne Printing Museum. I visited the museum when it was in Footscray and enjoyed remembering the Letterpress era of which I was a part of being a compositor.
    I hope the State Government and business people can chip in to save this memorable museum. Once it is gone it will be gone forever and not leave anything for future generations to explore and re-invent which is happening on a large scale in USA.
    There are some working printing museums, The Dorrigo Gazette still produces a Letterpress newspaper weekly. The Penrith Museum still operates in Sydney. The other one I have been involved with is at Peterborough SA which when the owner closed his front shop door in 2000 and never returned shows a Letterpress Newspaper and general printing with all the machines working and job records from early 1900’s. The Town Council now own the property and was saved from clearing out the machinery by local volunteers who suggested it could be used as a tourist opportunity to showcase Letterpress.

    Let’s get behind with a financial effort to save this great collection of Printing Machinery.

  3. April 11, 2018 at 1:50 pm,

    Survivor
    said:

    I’m all for saving history, but asking other groups, government, individuals etc to pay out the debts of this company is no different than asking the same groups to bale out the printing companies that have gone bust.
    (Perhaps a paper company could…)

    Those interested should wait for the auction or private sale, purchase what they want and set up the operation as a self sustaining business. Any financial effort should be to get the museum operational and not to pay out past debts. How it has got to such a huge amount in back rent is beyond me. All I can think, its not a typical landlord.

  4. April 12, 2018 at 2:29 am,

    said:

    Thanks to James Cryer and the contributors to this debate.

    It is relevant to note that MMOP is not a company, it is a heritage charity, registered with the ACNC. It exists for the communities it serves – the printing community, the design community, historians, librarians, archivists, researchers . . . and the general public and tourists.

    The founder has built this for the community, and cannot profit from it. He will be lucky if he can even save his family’s home. Perhaps, if he had known that the industry would never help, he might have saved his resources for other community projects.

    If the Museum had received the needed start-up funding – it is the only major museum that has to pay commercial rent and make it from activities – it would be covering its expenses by now.

    In the expectation that MMOP would get some help, the landlord was keen to help, but it must have gone to far for comfort.

    The collection is enormous because the “craft and business of printing and associated industries” is an enormous field. It’s not just a studio, and not just letterpress. The years of change 1960 to 1990 were very complex and very interesting and well represented. Today’s great invention is tomorrow’s museum piece.

    Plausibly, the whole web of industries: printing, publishing, packaging, advertising, signage, design including online, will benefit when and if MMOP is properly financed, working well seven days a week, interacting with thousands of people a month.

    The machinery is less than half the collection . . . the rest is archival material and libraries. MMOP is largely about the day-to-day business of the ordinary printer.

    There’s little revenue from archives, etc.: they are there for research, and most researchers cannot pay. The paid activities (professional development, student workshops, guided tours and general admission) are profitable but need staff so they can be upscaled and properly marketed.

    Many people in the community have little concept of these important industries. MMOP and other and printing museums could change that, possibly improving recruitment.

    Australia’s 20 or so smaller museums of printing will be welcome to use MMOP’s “museum service program” offering training to their volunteers and supplying fonts of movable type (made on site) and other hard-to-get items.

    The majority of the machinery, equipment and archives have not been catalogued and curated and of course give a poor impression. With adequate resources, it will take some years to complete. Then some less important items will be offered to other museums or disposed of.

    The collection of a museum – any museum – that has to pay rent, is forever in jeopardy.

    For anyone with something to say, please email our Curator, curator@mmop.org.au

  5. April 13, 2018 at 8:17 am,

    Fairgo
    said:

    Perhaps the people who sold the equipment in the first place – suppliers as represented by GAMAA (now Visual Connection) should be approached for support, both financial and intellectual. They do excellent funding of scholarships and other grants – have they been approached?

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