Imprints of the Eras

Right now, in your precious little hands, you are holding a piece of history. And despite the inky newsprint that's undoubtedly rubbing off on your fingers, it may someday find its way into an exhibit under the category of "Late 20th-Century Alternative Newsweeklies." That seems like just the sort of thing you'd find in the Museum of Printing History, a hidden gem among Houston's treasure-trove collections.

Celebrating the relationships that exist among printers and a free press, literate people and knowledgeable society, the museum houses both permanent and rotating exhibits of all things print-related.

Tracing printing history from ancient Babylonian seals used to illustrate clay tablets and scrolls around 3000 B.C. to stone lithography and linotype presses through today's computer-generated graphic blasts, the exhibits are admirably varied and well documented. "People want information when they come to a museum, so we make sure everything is not only described, but explained in its [historical] context," says curator Emily Nedell. Current highlights of exhibits on loan include:

"Life in Houston, 18971912": Copies of photos found in the attic of an old home near downtown Houston, these images are from the Humphreville-Beasley collection and document the daily life of the city as seen through the lens of the affluent Humphreville family. There's a boat being launched in a very different-looking Buffalo Bayou, the dredging of the Houston ship channel, and stills of everything from roaring locomotives to a woman washing her hair on her porch. An unglossy glimpse into the past. (Through September 12.)

"The Circus Is Coming!": Colorful posters and memorabilia from the golden age of the circus, when P.T. Barnum was perhaps the world's best-known man. Vintage posters entice you to see such oddities as the killer gorillas, Chinese dwarfs and even "Giraffe-Necked Women from Burma." The highlight is a gallery of photos and stories from many of the era's sideshow performers, including the dwarfish General Thom Thumb, original Siamese twins Chang and Eng and the unforgettable "Jo Jo, The Russian Dog-Faced Boy." If only Jerry Springer had been around then.... (Through September 19.)

"Magic Lanterns": Before the invention of the movie projector, Victorian audiences flowed to see color drawings of famous people, historical events and fictional stories projected on a wall through these devices (think of a life-sized View-Master). Dozens of mint-condition units (many still working) along with the glass slides of the era make you think, "Thank God for cable!" (Through September 19.)

Future exhibits include a Norman Rockwell retrospective and an exhibit on the history of miniature books.

The museum's permanent collection features a gallery of historic newspaper front pages including everyone from Ben Franklin to O.J. Simpson; a Texana collection; extremely rare presses; mock-up rooms of old-time newspaper offices and printing shops (kids can print their own pages of the Gutenberg Bible); and scores of other artifacts both serious and absurd. In "The History of the Office Machine," we see old dictaphones, battered Underwood typewriters and the monster centerpiece -- the first ever Xerox machine, from 1959, which is larger than most modern nuclear bombs and shows one inalienable truth: Cubicle slaves of yesteryear had to climb up pretty high to get a photocopy of their posteriors.

Finally, one area of the museum houses studios for printmaking, letterpress, bookbindery and papermaking. Working artists demonstrate these processes to visitors while making their own projects the old-fashioned way. More ink stains, anyone?

Museum Director Don Piercy plans to beef up collections of Texana, Americana, Civil War and Industrial Revolution artifacts in the near future, as well as add more films to the museum's theater and more guest speakers to the lecture series. "We're excited about expanding and always having something new for people," he says. "And after all, there's a lot of history to cover."

And that's not just what's happened on the front cover.

-- Bob Ruggiero

The Museum of Printing History is located at 1324 West Clay. Open 10 a.m.5 p.m. TuesdaySunday. $2 adults/$1 children. 522-4652.

 
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