A man opens the door.
“Is this the Print Museum?” I ask. (I can’t help myself.)
“Ah no,” he says. “This is the Labour History Museum.” He begins directing me to the Print Museum, but I’m joking. I want to visit the Labour Museum. Really. I do.
I’ve passed it many times, mostly on my way to the Print Museum. In fact, I’m on my way the Print Museum right now.
I don’t mention this to the man at the door.
“Come in!” he says. “Take your time.”
He whizzes around before me, whisking the dust cloths off the exhibition cases. (When was the last time anyone visited?)
The museum is small, more of an archive room. There are boxes of papers stacked in the back; theses and reports lining the shelves. There’s not much to engage the casual passer-by. I look at the book covers and pamphlets displayed in the cases, but can’t make sense of what I see. Too much detail, too little context.
Metaphor for life, I suppose.
The print museum is around the corner in the old garrison chapel. It’s bigger than the Labour Museum, but smaller than other museums I know: an hour to look at the exhibits and browse the gift shop; twenty minutes to relax over coffee.
I head to the trays of type: wooden and metal letters and punctuation marks. The letters are stored neatly, and I pick out the letters of my name, slide them onto a composing stick.
“Would you like to print your name on a Wanted poster?” asks the museum guide. She seems disappointed when I shake my head no, but I’ve already got a stack of wanted posters at home.
Besides, it’s the physical type that interests me, the sensation of holding letters in my hand. The ultimate deconstruction of the writing process.
The machines intrigue me, too: a wooden printing press ( a replica, built for the set of The Tudors), a Linotype machine, and a Wharfedale Stop Cylinder press (similar to the one the 1916 Proclamation was printed on). They’re bulky and functional, but there’s a beauty about them too, an engraving here, a nameplate there.
In one corner is the Shaw Pen Ruler, a massive machine that looks like a loom. It was used to print three-colour cashbooks and copybooks. I like its elaborate set up, a system of pens and guides designed to encourage us to stay within the lines.
The machines are silent now, and it’s easy to romanticise them. They took skill and patience to operate. Strength, too. But on days they broke down, or smudged ink, or refused to take an even impression, they must have broken their operators’ hearts.
A lot like writing, then.