India is not a great country for museums. Most are tawdry affairs, overstaffed, under-curated and swaddled in bureaucratic cobwebs. The exhibits might be the best-in-class, not surprising, considering India’s cultural and historical heritage goes back 5,000 years. But the experience is neither uplifting nor immersive. They enjoy a rather dubious reputation as places schoolchildren are forced to walk through on annual excursions.

As for non-generalist museums, the situation is dire. Few exist. Despite a continental coastline exceeding 6,000 km and a maritime heritage going back many millennia, India does not have a maritime museum. The railways have fared a little better with a National Rail Museum in Delhi and numerous regional museums. But most other areas have done pretty badly.

For instance, Mumbai was one of the textile capitals of the world but has been struggling to set up a single textile museum for over a decade. For a country obsessed with movies, film museums are a rarity in India. Ditto for almost anything else you can think of – including printing museums.

Printing museums? What are they? Why do we need them? As ubiquitous as the air we breathe, print is something we hardly notice. Apart from the books and newspapers we read, print is on practically everything we encounter. From the packaging on everyday items to printed electronics and textiles, print is everywhere. Overlapping the space between science and technology on one hand and art and design on the other, printing is an industry that arguably has one of the biggest footprints on life.

A copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Credit: Kpalion, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As the story goes, a goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg invented printing in the 1450s and printed a 42-line Bible in Mainz, Germany. But printing has a longer history in Asia. China can lay claim to being the motherland of printing. The history of Chinese paper and printing can be traced over 2,000 years. Innumerable ancient printed artifacts are in existence today and the print technology behind their production is well documented.

From China, printing moved to Japan and Korea which also have a long and illustrious tradition of printing. In these countries, printing was done from blocks as well as type manufactured from wood, clay or metal. By the 14th century, the technology had moved westward to Europe, perhaps via West Asia, where it had a long gestation period before being refined and perfected by Gutenberg and his contemporaries in the 1440s into what is now known as mechanical letterpress printing. Print rapidly spread throughout Europe within the next century and was soon became a part of life.

Printing reached India in 1556 when a printing press intended for Jesuit missionaries in Ethiopia providentially reached Goa. For the next two centuries, printing had a precarious existence in India. Print began to make its presence felt in India only from the 1780s. The colonial cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras gradually emerged as print capitals. It took another 50 years for print to spread across the country.

By the 1850s, a few other cities like Pune, Delhi, Lucknow and Ahmedabad had emerged as centres of print. At the end of the nineteenth century, India was one of the largest print markets in the world and it continues to retain that status in the 21st century. For the last 200 years and more, print has permeated every aspect of life in India and this is a cause certainly worth commemorating and cherishing. And what better way to do it than via printing museums?

A printing press at the Goa State Museum. Credit: AaronC's Photos, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Printing museums across the globe

There are hundreds of printing museums in the world, mostly in Europe and America. Printing museums come in all shapes and sizes – and with a range of perspectives. Some of them shine the spotlight on the technology behind print. Others celebrate the printed object. 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. Others have been set up in the last couple of decades as the importance of print heritage have been globally recognised.

Some aspire to be national museums like the National Print Museum of Ireland. 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. Yet others focus on a publishing house, for example the Oxford University Press Museum.

Some, like the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, 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 21st century. The Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp, Belgium is a time capsule representing 300 years of print and the only museum recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

How did these museums originate? Some of them are projects of national pride like the China Printing Museum at Beijing 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 two millennia. On a much smaller scale is the municipal Cheongju Early Printing Museum in Korea which celebrates Jikji, a book printed in 1377 using movable metal type, the earliest such book to be discovered.

Often, it is an individual, a print enthusiast if you will, who conceives a print conservation project which metamorphoses into a printing museum. Consider the case of The Type Archive. The writing was on the wall by the 1990s: the era of metal types had ended after an extended run of over 500 years. The few UK companies that still produced hot-metal types were going bankrupt. Enter Susan Shaw. A veteran of the publishing industry, Shaw took up the gauntlet of preserving whatever could be salvaged from the ruins with a crusader’s zeal.

Korean moveable typeset from 1447. Credit: Uploadmo, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

When the Monotype Corporation, one of the two companies to dominate print in the twentieth century, went into liquidation in 1992, Shaw negotiated the purchase of the hot-metal division. The scale of its assets and archives was remarkable as Monotype was in operation from 1900 and maintained meticulous records and designed typefaces for over 300 scripts which were used globally.

The next acquisition of The Type Archive was a typefounding collection that had its roots in the 16th century. Types and matrices were considered the core of the printing industry and were passed on from generation to generation. When one master typefounder retired or died, his foundry would be acquired by an aspiring master typefounder. Through this process, Stephenson, Blake & Co of Sheffield had come to possess one of the most remarkable collections of typefounding history by 1937.

In 1996, Shaw negotiated the purchase of the entire collection that had material going back to the 1500s. In the same year, the Archive also bought the largest collection of wood type in the UK, which were used for printing posters and banners. All the three acquisitions were still in operation when they were acquired by The Type Archive and now constitute the National Typefounding Collection of the UK with over 8 million artifacts.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund whose mandate, as a fund of last resort, is to save some of the most-loved treasures in the UK stepped in. It funded not just the acquisitions but also the museum site, a former veterinary college in South London. The Type Archive also raised funds from private sources and continues to run an active fund-raising campaign.

All over the world, printers have been active in protecting and sharing their print heritage in the 21st century. They could be ambitious projects conceived by print behemoths like Toppan of Japan that has been around for 20 years. Or they could be small family-owned presses like the The Royal Press in Melaka, Malaysia showcasing local print heritage which opened in 2014.

It could be a refurbisher of printing presses like the Howard Iron Works in Canada which reinvented itself in 2015 as a museum showcasing a wide collection of functioning printing technology.

The Indian situation

A printing press used by freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Credit: Shankar S via Flickr. CC BY 2.0

How does India fare in this vibrant world of printing heritage?

In one word, dismal. The Odisha Printing Museum associated with the Government Press in Cuttack is perhaps the only museum in India that is exclusively devoted to printing and has a representative collection of machinery that covers all aspects of printing from the era of the letterpress to the era of phototypesetting.

When the press was being modernised, the 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 its nothing more than a storehouse with potential to be a printing museum.

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 major mission presses include the American Mission Press (1817) in Mumbai, the Cuttack Mission Press (1837) and the Basel Mission Press in 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 local printers associations. 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 has not reached the potential it could have.

A few generalist museums in India have print-related exhibits. The Goa State Museum in Panaji has a section on printing history that aims to trace the five-centuries long history of printing in that state. The Ahmednagar Museum has the original wooden printing press 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.

A box of type. Credit:

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 that 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. However, neither are these collections accessible to the general public nor have they been curated or contextualised.

Nowhere is the story of print in India explored. Nowhere are the print practitioners of yesteryear celebrated. Nowhere are visitors able to understand the overarching role print plays in everyday life. Can we change this situation?

A blueprint

How should India go about developing printing museums? How many of them does India need? What kind of vision should they have? And where will they get their funds from?

While these questions await answers, we can look at new museum initiatives in India for inspiration. The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art at New Delhi (opened 2010) and the Museum of Art & Photography at Bengaluru (to be opened later this year) are two major initiatives led by private funding. Then there are niche museums like Museo Camera (2009) which focuses on photography. The National Museum of Indian Cinema was set up under the auspices of the Films Division of the Government of India. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has unveiled plans to develop a museum for textile technology in Mumbai. Digital museums like Sarmaya are exploring new ways to interact with their audiences.

Who should take the lead for printing museums? Should we wait for the government? Or a group of print aficionados? Maybe printing trade associations? Any proposal for a printing museum will certain have to involve individuals and companies from the print industry and printing historians. 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 that has been and still is 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 requirements and sources, the collection of exhibits, and other practicalities.

Next year, 2022, marks the bicentenary of Bombay Samachar, the longest continually published newspaper in Asia. Wouldn’t it be fitting to mark this landmark print anniversary by initiating a printing museum or two?

Murali Ranganathan is a print historian with a focus on 19th-century Western India.