While the prevailing metaphor for 2016 was “dumpster fire,” the reality for Houston’s Printing Museum was “electrical fire.” That May, a short-lived blaze consumed the building in a thick layer of smoke and soot that’s taken 20 months to banish. In total, 14,000 pounds of materials were shipped off, frozen to inhibit mold growth, restored page-by-page, and returned.
As of late last month, visitors are again free to explore its labyrinth of hallways and switchbacks, and traverse graveyards of hulking printing equipment. The first gallery opens with the greatest hits (think historic newspapers and iron presses with heavy levers), but visitors soon wander into a hall of recent relics, host to Xerox behemoths, typewriters, and a circa-1984 Macintosh. A procession of the end products—things like currency, lithographs, and pages from a Gutenberg Bible—is interspersed throughout, as well as workshops for artists and artisans.
“People come in here like it’s some kind of TARDIS: ‘Oh, it’s so much bigger on the inside!’” says Executive Director Jennifer Pearson. “You keep going, and you keep going.”
Founded in 1979 as the Museum of Printing History by a quartet of ink-stained printers, the former engraving shop is a remnant of Houston’s early printer’s row (nearby Stages Repertory Theatre occupies another defunct facility). Originally, the focus was on the equipment, but more recently, the vision of the museum has shifted to demonstrating the artistic and cultural impact of printing technology. “Printing has really been a battleground for both the possession and dissemination of information,” says printmaker John Earles, chairman of the museum’s board of directors. “We’re trying to figure out how to share a conversation about that.”
Part of the answer lies in the museum’s 374 boxes of restored materials. Each item has had to be documented and catalogued after the fire, forcing the staff to take stock of items that had gathered dust on the shelf. “We’re finding our own treasures from the vault,” says Pearson, “and we hope to put on different exhibitions from the things we’re finding in there.”