London's Most Hidden Museum? We Find The Type Museum

By Kate Smith | 09 October 2005
A selection of the many typefaces manufactured by Monotype for use around the world.

A selection of the many typefaces manufactured by Monotype for use around the world.

July 2006 update: unfortunately we hear that this museum has now closed.

After walking through many twisting backstreets in Stockwell, Kate Smith tracks down London's Type Museum, home to the scripts of hundreds of languages.

Director Howard Bratter lets me into the Type Museum by unlocking a padlock and pulling hard on a chain. There are rattling noises as the metal door gradually winds itself up to reveal a workshop space filled with printing presses - from ornate black-and-gold Victorian to tractorish 1970s industrial machines.

photo shows shed with machines

Part of the museum

The Type Museum is a museum in progress. Open at the moment just one day a month (and at other time by appointment), it is home to collections spanning over 400 years to the present day.

The heart of its collection is the thousands of typefaces produced for countries throughout the world by the company Monotype, and the machines they were created on.

Many countries ordered their first ever printed typefaces from Monotype. Hence most of the world’s alphabets and scripts are represented in the vaults of the Type Museum – engraved or cast in metal, cut in wood, preserved on film or digitally encoded.

photo shows German script

German text

The museum has existed in some form for ten years, but it was only in September 2005 that the curators were able to switch on a substantial number of the machines for the first time. They hope that the public will be able to use the presses in the near future.

The museum is less ordered (and much more dusty) than your average heritage site, but this is its charm. Caroline Bray, head of Strategic Development, explains that they are keen to make more of the Type Museum’s collections more accessible, but it will be a challenge to get the vast collection on display, and allow people to safely use the machinery.

The interest and expertise of local volunteers will be vital to the museum as it develops: it is lucky that the demographic of Stockwell is now just as varied as the many languages represented in the museum.

photo shows black cast iron printing press with gold eagle on top

A Victorian press with a symbolic eagle on top.

You come away from the museum with a sense of the passion behind the letters - both from the curators, and from the original printers. One early Victorian press has a cast iron eagle sitting on top of the press - each time a page is printed, it flies up into the air - symbolising truth escaping into the world.

It recalls a time when printing was frequently a business that attracted radicals who used the written word to foment social change. So it is appropriate that the future of the Type Museum is planned as a practical, hands on kind of museum.

You can find out opening times for the Type museum under "T" in the UntoldLondon listings section.

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