Melbourne Museum of Printing

Melbourne Museum of Printing

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The Melbourne Museum of Printing has a vast collection.

Australia's working and teaching museum of typography and printing located at Footscray, Victoria. Specialising in retention of traditional printing, both the equipment and the knowledge.

The collector and his labyrinth

This article is from the March 31, 2018 issue of The Age Digital Edition.

A collection of treasures and ephemera from the printing industry that have been amassed by one man over decades are at risk of being sold off and lost to the public. Joe Hinchliffe reports.

Inside a warehouse in western Melbourne, a retired craftsman turns on a relic of a machine and begins to practise a dying art. As the engine fires up, a spiderweb of pulleys and cables whir into life. The man levers a metal magazine into the frame of the machine and locks it in place. Like the man, the machine is heavy-set - it stands about two metres tall and weighs a tonne-and-a-half . As he cranks handles and adjusts dials, the man looks for all the world like the pilot of some steam-powered aircraft. He sits on a stool at a keyboard made improbably small by both the machine to which it is attached and the stubby worker's fingers that tap its keys, quick and delicate. The machine is set aclatter. Like a tractor engine with its hood up, the process is visible to the naked eye - through his glasses, the man can see its melting pot heat to about 300 degrees and the lead it holds transformed to liquid. The machine arranges letter moulds corresponding to the keys that the man taps into a line. Into this the molten lead is pumped - within a fraction of a second it solidifies and the letters that the operator typed form a metal bar called a slug. A series of knives slice the slug into shape and it falls into a tray.

Letter moulds - or matrices - are pulled up to the top of the machine by a series of long arms and elevators. Then they fall, down through channel and chamber, back into their allocated magazines with the strangely soothing sound of metallic raindrops.

The man continues to type as his typed words are transmuted into lead.

The machine is a Linotype, ubiquitous in newspaper and printing houses from the late 19th century to about the 1980s, when they were rendered obsolete by new technologies.

It is one of dozens of hulking machines in the Melbourne Museum of Printing (MMoP), a hoard of treasures and ephemera of the printing industry in Australia from its early days of handcrafted letters right up to the computer age. While the scene is from a video shot in 2005, when the museum was housed in a warehouse in Footscray before it moved further west.

Among the museum's vast and disordered collection are boxes of engraved images, including several by The Age's celebrated cartoonist, the late Ron Tandberg.

Also here are trays upon trays of lead fonts, antique tools and a library of books and manuals. No longer in print, they carry a wealth of knowledge about how to operate equipment which, though not used any more on an industrial scale, are sought after by a community of printbased artists and boutique designers.

It is home too to working artefacts that predate the Linotypes - an Albion letterpress made in 1849 sits in pride of place and was used to hand-print books, posters and art up until this year - until disaster struck.

Although this disaster materialised suddenly, it had been travelling as slowly and irresistibly as a glacier over the years, arguably set in motion at the very moment the museum was born.

When Michael Isaachsen arrived at the locked door of his museum in February, there was a letter from his landlord in the window. It demanded that he quit the premises 'forthwith' .

Isaachsen does not have the money to move a collection that amounts to between 30 and 70 semi-trailer loads, let alone to pay for its storage nor the rent of a new premises in which to rebuild his museum from the ashes once again.

Now 77, his days as a self-made museum director are at a precipice. And with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent owing, so is the collection he built from scratch. The Linotypes, the printing presses and the engravings face the prospect of being boiled down to scrap, the books tossed onto the garbage heap. If he calculates the money spent on buying material, paying rent, storing, moving and maintaining equipment, Isaachsen estimates that he and his family have ploughed 'north of $2 million' into the museum. That includes an anonymous family member who sold an investment property for Isaachsen's cause.

It doesn't include 15 years' worth of wages lost by quitting his career in Australia Post early to pursue his dream of founding a museum of print, 'which results in me having nearly no possessions other then what's in the museum'' .

'I have a very deep worry that my 40 years of work, my life's savings and other people's life savings have gone into making something that is worthwhile - and it could all be lost.'

The landlord - John Jackanic - says he feels sorry for Isaachsen. He believed in the museum and says he did his best to support Isaachsen's dream for seven years - something Isaachsen does not dispute. But now Jackanic fears being left with close to $500,000 in unpaid rent as well as a collection so gargantuan not even the man who assembled it knows its entire contents.

'It's sad the equipment is going to be lost if nobody buys it, but who I am going to sell it to? I have no connections in printing, I have no knowledge about what it all is,' he said. 'I'll be 75 this year ... I don't want be stuck with this.'

Jackanic, a pilot turned property developer, says he is fed up with years of empty words and deals that came to nothing. He says the relationship with his tenant - once warm - has soured, his trust evaporated.

And so Jackanic and Isaachsen have both engaged lawyers, with the landlord arguing the material in the building can be considered abandoned and, therefore, his property.

The story of the Melbourne museum of print is a circuitous one littered with setbacks. It began in the '70s, when hobby printer Isaachsen saw an opportunity and a responsibility amid the waves of new technology disrupting the industry. As entire factories full of machinery became obsolete overnight, he took it upon himself to acquire and preserve the equipment and the skills that he loved.

Even his critics admit he showed staggering resolve and bloodymindedness . His collection grew and grew, quickly outstripping one man's power to catalogue and store it.

But tales of Isaachsen and his museum spread among designers, craftspeople and artists and over the years he had no shortage of volunteers and would-be collaborators - among them distinguished academics, museum curators and high-profile artists.

Yet when Isaachsen was locked out of his museum this year, it remained a oneman operation.

In 2009, Warren Taylor, a Monash University lecturer in communication design, spearheaded a campaign to bail Isaachsen out of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent and 'save the MMoP' .

In those days the museum's home was in Moreland Street, Footscray.

Taylor rallied a team of high-profile artists - Jon Campbell, Emily Floyd and Callum Morton among them - and design studios and put on a community fundraiser headlined by cult post-punk outfit Primitive Calculators.

They raised about $30,000 and the collection in Moreland Street was saved. But as Taylor was soon to learn, the items he had helped rescue were just the tip of an iceberg. 'When it was on Moreland St there was basically a sort of a pathway leading through the clutter of equipment, machinery, furniture and type, it filled up most of the space of the workshop,'' Taylor recalls of his first visit to the museum in the early 2000s.

'I was amazed at how incredible a collection it was and that it was a working museum ... you were able to sort of work with the presses, you had access to the type, there were just rows and rows of type cases. You could dig out something that Michael hadn't seen for 10 years.'

For several years prior to the crisis in 2009, Taylor had suggested Isaachsen needed a committee to help steer the museum out of debt and consolidate the collection.

With the success of their fundraiser and an enthused team of printers, designers and artists, it seemed a possibility. Taylor was establishing his own gallery, had an academic career and a young family to care for, but he believed in Isaachsen's dream of a working museum.

That was until Isaachsen took him to another factory in the outer western suburb of Brooklyn. When they arrived at a pallet warehouse that day, workers were dumping cases of metal type into a skip. 'Michael was quite emotional,' Taylor says.

He estimates Isaachsen had more than 500 pallets of equipment stored in the warehouse - as well as an unknown amount of money owing to the building's owner. 'They were selling the metal, steel, anything they could get money for,' Taylor says.

Taylor was to learn that the collection was scattered in warehouses across Melbourne's west. That was the moment the full scope of Isaachsen's vision dawned upon him. This was no quirky, suburban collection.

'It would be one of the biggest museums in the world,' Taylor says.

Taylor, along with a small group of volunteers, set about saving what they could. As he sorted through unmarked box upon unmarked box, he learned more of how Isaachsen had come to acquire his collection.

Of how when The Canberra Times closed its printing operation down, its entire contents were trucked to Melbourne to add to the MMoP. Along with the typesetter and curved wooden type for newspaper posters, he ended up with coffee cups, stationery, 'all the ephemera' of a printing studio.

Of when government printing houses and newspapers auctioned off equipment, Isaachsen was there early going through their bins.

The result was that, mixed with objects of typophiles' dreams - unopened Stempel Type Foundry Helvetica from 1957, like a rare toy still in its box - was some of Isaachsen's grade 10 maths book.

'It would be like me walking into an op shop and finding 20,000 LPs and just deciding to take them all home without any plan to actually distribute them,' Taylor says.

And this accumulation is largely uncatalogued. The realisation left Taylor utterly deflated .

'If Michael had have taken me to that [Brooklyn] factory before we had the fundraiser we probably wouldn't have been so naive to think we could save the museum,' he says. 'We would have been crushed by the quantity.'

Taylor is far from the only qualified person who tried to steer Isaachsen in a direction which they believed would secure the future of his museum.

Over the decades, Isaachsen has left a string of frustrated academics, artists and printers in his wake. Many used the word 'naive' to describe their initial belief that they would be able to work with him. One said his relentless hoarding of objects and inability to genuinely share them with others had left him with a 'dead repository of stuff' instead of 'a living museum' .

Isaachsen invited audiovisual designer Mal Padgett to vouch for the museum's worth to Jackanic when the pair first met at the Croatian Club in Footscray in 2010. Padgett was more than happy to help convince the landlord of the value of the collection, but 'went to great pains' to distance himself from the museum's financial foundations.

In March this year he spoke of a consortium of people from academic and cultural institutions who were anxious to see the collection was not lost and keen to create a modern and internationally significant museum with it.

'There are people ready to cherrypick this collection,' Padgett said. 'They are ready for this to fall over, they are just going to pull it to pieces, and we can't let that happen.'

When he met Isaachsen this month, he had a '' cruncher' for him - it was time he relinquished control.

'' I love what Michael has done - without Michael, without his relentlessness and his dedication and his passion for this, we wouldn't have this archive, and that's got to be recognised, that's got to be respected,' he said.

'But the same person has also made the decisions that have got us to ... a crisis point.

'What we all agree on is that this can't go to scrap metal, this cannot be destroyed.''

Jackanic doesn't want to be left out of pocket. If a white knight consortium could pay what he is owed and save the entire museum, 'that would be perfect' .

Taylor says much of the collection needs to be sold off and the best, remaining items assembled and run as an independent museum. This, he says, will preserve its original DIY ethos.

'I do feel sorry for Michael, that he has this great collection, but it also is a great burden to him,' he says. 'It would be hard to separate him from the collection, but I think that's probably the only way to actually do something long-term with it.''

That is something upon which, in a way, both he and Isaachsen agree.

Isaachsen is making an 11th-hour appeal for a loan of several million dollars over five years. He is hoping that a philanthropist will recognise what is at stake and prevent 'a massacre' .

With his 80s approaching, Isaachsen has a plan: a board would be in charge of the museum's operation, allowing him to walk away into retirement.

'I thought by now that other people would be running it,' he says. 'It wasn't meant to be me.'

Whatever happens next, Isaachsen will be parting ways with his life's work. The question is, will the collection survive? Did he merely postpone the inevitable - or will it become the museum of which he has always dreamt?

If you or someone you know could offer support, please email [email protected].

'I was amazed at how incredible a collection it was and that it was a working museum . . . you were able to sort of work with the presses.'

Warren Taylor, Monash University lecturer
Footscray WestVictoria9689 7555

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