City of books: Renovated printing museum takes visitors back to Antwerp’s golden age

Summary

The reopened Museum Plantin-Moretus is a hymn to the printing industry and the eponymous family who pioneered the craft in Antwerp

The font, the man, the city

In a room filled with centuries-old printing presses, a short film plays on a loop. It’s a mesmerising close-up, silent but for the rustle of paper and the echoes of a craftsman at work. A typesetter selects characters and paper, binds his materials into position, applies ink, then cranks a wheel to produce a printed manuscript; Virgil’s epic Aeneid. The detail is so fine you can see every grain in the paper, every hair on the typesetter’s hand.

It’s one of the first things you’ll encounter at the newly renovated Museum Plantin-Moretus, a hymn to the printing industry and the eponymous family who pioneered the craft in Antwerp, exporting knowledge to the rest of the world.

Christophe Plantin, a French bookbinder, moved to Antwerp in the mid-16th century, buying the house on the city’s Vrijdagmarkt that would become the hub of his family business. Here he printed and distributed thousands of religious, scientific and linguistic texts written by leading scholars of the time. His daughter Martine was later put in charge of the business; at 20 she married Jan Moretus, who became his father-in-law’s successor.

This was an age of plenty for the Low Countries, and for Antwerp in particular. It was an international port and a city of books, home to dozens of printers, publishers and booksellers. Trade was expanding, leading to increased wealth and flourishing culture. Scholars from all over Europe settled here, and merchants shipped their wares to and from the city’s port.

The city of Antwerp bought the house and its contents from Edward Moretus 140 years ago, and in 2005 it was recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.

A glimpse of family life

As part of the €4.5 million renovation, the museum urgently needed a modern depot for its vast collection of printed material – they change the books on display every two years and turn the pages of coloured books every three months to protect them. Alongside the repository, the museum now also has a new reading room.

“This house breathes books,” says museum director Iris Kockelbergh, and indeed, books are everywhere, lining the walls and picked out as exhibits. “We didn’t want to create a multimedia museum; we wanted to create a place where you can feel at home.”

It’s a superb story of 400 years of history, entrepreneurial drive and creativity. For me, this is the most important museum in Antwerp

- Philip Heylen

The makeover has helped with that, paying particular attention to increased comfort. Benches, seats and lecterns encourage visitors to sit and read, to take their time. The beautiful guidebook takes each room in turn, offering biographies of the nine generations that lived and worked here, as well as notable quotes, reproductions and an overview of the historical context.

You also get snippets of family tales. How Plantin had his five daughters educated in numerous languages so they could help out with proofreading, for example, or the grandson obsessed with inventorying his possessions who left 32 versions of his will when he died.

In the museum itself, the scenographers wanted to move away from a focus on the printing industry and bring to light the various facets of Plantin – the father, the publisher, the businessman, the humanist – in as poetic a manner as possible.

Transported in time

One way they’ve achieved this is displayed in the large drawing room, on whose walls hang portraits of the nine generations of the Plantin-Moretus dynasty. All are gloomy and straight-faced, except for one contemporary, digital interloper: a young girl reading with a glimmer of a smile on her lips, who radiates light.

On closer inspection, the background appears to be shifting. The girl is one of Plantin’s daughters: as well as a pioneering publisher, the museum reminds us, he was also a family man. (You could also choose to take it as a message that reading makes you radiant.)

Elsewhere, a bone china tea service sits on a table, chandeliers drip with teardrop-shaped crystals, a gilt clock ticks on the wall; all reminders that this was a living household – not to mention a rich one, thanks to Plantin’s entrepreneurship.

There are more than 30 rooms to visit, from the type store and the drawing room to the libraries and courtyard. The creaking of floorboards adds to the atmosphere, as do various subtle soundscapes.

The second-floor foundry, up a spiral staircase from the dark library, is breathtaking: a long room flooded with natural light – one of the few to be lit, for the protection of the delicate manuscripts. This is where you learn about the process of creating type. Plantin bought his letter sets from the best designers of the day, and to prevent other printers using them he bought the equipment too.

A true visionary

But today the museum is much more than a pilgrimage site for those who love typography. Audio guides featuring well-known Flemish voices help to bring the family and the age to life, while those visiting with children can take on a murder mystery challenge. There are also opportunities to dress up and join in hands-on activities.

Philip Heylen, Antwerp city councillor for culture and heritage: “It’s a superb story of 400 years of history, entrepreneurial drive and creativity. For me, this is the most important museum in Antwerp.”

Art is great, exhibitions are great, but this is history. History bursts out of every volume. Here we see a printer, businessman, daredevil, networker and family man at work

- Philip Heylen, Antwerp city councillor

It’s not a nostalgic look back to the good old days, but a living museum and a human story, he says. “Art is great, exhibitions are great, but this is history. History bursts out of every volume. Here we see a printer, businessman, daredevil, networker and family man at work.”

In terms of his managerial acumen, he says, Plantin was up there with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. “He came here as a migrant, and he has given us many things. He taught us how to think, and here in Antwerp he laid the foundations for the computer. He was a visionary.”

Flemish culture minister Sven Gatz compared the museum to a time machine transporting visitors back to the 16th century. Few other museums are as groundbreaking, he said at the official opening. “The renovated museum is everything a museum today can and should be. It feels like at any moment the printers could be arriving to start their working day.”

The museum is celebrating the grand reopening with a programme of activities this weekend. Entrance to the museum is free, with readings in the new reading room, and the Vrijdagmarkt will host theatre, live music and printing workshops.

Vrijdagmarkt 22, Antwerp

Photo: Ans Brys