The long dying of the Melbourne Museum of Printing

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Michael Isaachsen is learning the hard way that no good deed goes unpunished. The industry enthusiast has long laboured to maintain one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of vintage printing equipment in Australia. He has poured his heart and soul, as well as a good deal of hard cash, into keeping the Melbourne Museum of Printing a going concern. Now it’s all about to come crashing down.

Long labour of love: Michael Isaachsen, Melbnourne Museum of Printing
Long labour of love: Michael Isaachsen, Melbourne Museum of Printing

Unless there is a dramatic intervention from a fairy godmother or a white knight, Isaachsen’s labour of love will be auctioned off this month to pay outstanding rent on the West Footscray premises that harbours his life’s work. In the latest and perhaps final desperate attempt to keep the MMoP going, he is appealing for industry support or even an introduction to a wealthy philanthropist.

In the 40 years since Isaachsen started his quixotic quest to curate printing history in tangible form, he has spent over $3 million of his own and his family’s money to keep the venture afloat. He sacrificed his career with Telecom at the age of 50 to work full time on the MMoP, selling his home as well as spending his superannuation to keep the venture going.

Along the way he’s collected an amazing number of vintage presses, the oldest being an 1849 Albion letterpress by Wilsons of London. There are also Monotype hot-metal typesetting systems, a Mergenthaler Linotype, and a Ludlow Typograph that casts from matrices assembled by hand. In addition there are cases filled with type, numerous platens and even old fashioned switchboards – everything, in fact, you’d need to operate a printing plant, albeit pre-digital, even pre-offset.

The numerous items are locked away from Isaachsen, who is barred from entering the premises by the landlord. Fiery as ever, he is contesting the legality of the auction on the grounds that despite the landlord having a personal guarantee from him and his family for the rent, there are individual items included that are not catalogued, some of which are owned by other individuals. In addition, he refutes any suggestion that he has abandoned the goods as he is still paying for the utilities of the building, as well as having paid off previous overdue rent up to August this year.

So why would an individual sacrifice so much for such an ideal as a museum of printing? “It needed to be done,” he says simply. “If I didn’t do it, who else would? The presses were being junked.”

After so many years and sacrifices does he have any regrets? “It may not have been very sensible, but it was the right thing to do. I still believe that,” he said.

He is still hoping to convince the landlord to call off the sale and allow him a few months to the end of January to catalogue all the items and identify who owns what. He promises that if he still has not raised the philanthropic wind by then, he’ll auction them off himself, a final irony in an amazing crusade to preserve Melbourne’s history of printing.

Up for auction: Wharfedale Stop Cylinder Press
Up for auction: Wharfedale Stop Cylinder Press
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