Michael Isaachsen is a Collector
"I found all sorts of interesting places, but none more so than a print shop."
West Footscray, particularly that part of West Footscray that stretches along either side of the wide, barren Geelong Road, is not a glamorous place. Industrial and polluted, it’s a perfect place to drive through on your way to somewhere else. I wouldn’t usually linger, but I have come here with a purpose. I have come to visit the Melbourne Museum of Printing.
My husband has driven me here, partly because his father was a photo-lithographer in a past life, and partly because I can’t drive. We wait for Michael Isaachsen, the museum’s founder, and try to avoid breathing in the fumes from a nearby tyre factory. The nature strip is choked with dandelions, and a lot of the street seems abandoned. We know we’re in the right place, though, because when we peer in the window we can see hundred-year-old printing presses sulking under sheets, and cases of type set down forlornly on a dusty lino floor.
It’s a far cry from MMoP’s old premises in Footscray, in a warm, open former printery. I’d visited it in its prior incarnation a few times when I worked in Footscray, strolling over on my lunch break to the nearby Community Arts Centre. Back then it was small but welcoming, a teaching museum open to Footscray’s growing foot traffic. My interest was piqued when I stuck my head in and a volunteer invited me to tour their warehouse, behind the museum and stacked to the rafters with type. I remember that there were warm Scotch finger biscuits involved, and cups of very sweet tea. I’ve thought fondly of the place ever since.
After ten minutes—we erred on the side of caution, and arrived uncharacteristically early—we hear the honk of a car horn, and a flannel-clad arm which I recognise from Jackson’s photographs waves enthusiastically from the other side of the highway. It’s Michael, zipping over to meet us in an incongruously modern little hatchback. He greets us warmly, and leads us into the museum.
After making us aware of the OHS risks—something I don’t remember from the old space, though visitors could hypothetically handle a goodly amount of lead—he invites us on a tour of the new space, which turns out to be labyrinthine. For the next forty-five minutes or so, he gives short, poetic monologues on this piece of equipment and that, deftly evading my repeated requests to turn on my dictaphone. Though he is clearly enthusiastic about his project and wants readers to share his zeal, he seems more comfortable talking off the record, leading us through room after room of beautiful, antiquarian machinery. His face breaks into a crooked grin as he cracks a salty joke, one of a few he makes while my recording equipment is turned off. It’s a beautiful smile, one that reflects a genuine joy in the world, and the transcript of our conversation is punctuated by wry, sometimes self-deprecating laughter.
Though Michael warns me that most of the collection is still in transit, what is there is enough to give any fellow enthusiast palpitations of joy. He shows me founts of type, with their raised ridges, spelling the alphabet backwards; and tiny letterpress matrices made to cradle words of molten lead. We walk by antique presses and linotype machines, some so old that even Michael can’t figure out how to get them working again. He’s deeply involved with each piece, reeling off its particulars in exhaustive detail.
In fact, it’s the trivia tidbit that he’s been a guest on the ABC’s Collectors that sheds the most light on his incredibly unlikely project. Though he started as a hobbyist, and has never worked in the industry, Michael has become that most specialist of individuals, the collector. Buying up any and all printing equipment as segment after segment of the industry became obsolete, he has managed to become a lay historian of sorts, an obsessively knowledgeable figure whose accumulated expertise has allowed him, for many years, to run the museum his own way.
Though Michael is devoted to his machines for their own sake, and would no doubt cherish his collection if not a piece of it worked, the presses are gearing up for a second run at life. There’s been a recent groundswell of interest in letterpress printing, with a growing tide of emerging and established printmakers keen to take up traditional methods. Printmakers like Carolyn Fraser, profiled at the end of this piece, may have come historically late to the party, but they’re picking up the trade with a gusto that would make the old guard proud.
These are the people Michael is hoping the new space will attract, in numbers that will make the museum a financially sustainable concern. For close to two decades, he’s run the museum as a passion project, choosing to retain precise curatorial control over an enormous private collection rather than turn it over to a public trust or university. But after years of running the museum at a loss, and after being saved by the goodwill of the design community and a fundraiser that propelled him into the public eye, he’s ready to take a step back from the day-to-day running of the museum.
With his upcoming seventieth birthday, he hopes to inaugurate the museum as a public trust, making its realms of archival material accessible to researchers, printmakers and the generally curious. The new space is designed to allow Michael to take a step back; to rely more on the volunteers and young designers who are willing to carry the torch of traditional methods. His life’s work has been in building something spectacular. He’s very much hoping that he can pass it on.
The Melbourne Museum of Printing, which will reopen this year, can currently be toured by appointment.
“It was never my profession, but it’s what I got to late in life, in my forties. I started printing as an enthusiast when I was nine. I used to go into the city and look around factories instead of going to school. I found all sorts of interesting places, but none more so than a print shop. The linotype machine, which made a bar of metal with letters along the edge, in many respects had my name on it. The printers would ask, “What’s your name, son?” and then type it out, make me a slug and I would take it to school. And all the boys wanted them, so I started buying and selling them. I bought a small printing press when I was ten. I was a hobby printer… I printed for money and for fun.”
“I’d love to include examples of early communication in the museum, hand-written books & telegraphy. Perhaps not carrier pigeon—we’ve had enough pigeons in here.”
“My family could see that I’d done something that was reasonably worthwhile. Perhaps against their better judgement, but out of love, they have sold and mortgaged hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stuff. Houses, and other items. So… without my drive, it wouldn’t be here, but without my drive, my family would be a lot better off. Certainly without their support, there would be no museum, and what I had accumulated up to, say, 1990-something, it would’ve gone.”
“There’s always things coming in, but the majority of what we have has not been a donation. I’ve had to buy it. As printers were closing, they’d have an auction… A couple of places, when they discovered I was from the museum, they waived the bill but it’s pretty rare. The majority of things I’ve paid for, thinking, perhaps foolishly, that the government or perhaps industry would like to step in & help pay for it—but that’s never happened”
“The foundry hasn’t turned a wheel since we first moved. I’m very keen to get it going again, because lots of people want type. There’s a renewed interest in letterpress.”
“I hope that it will become a public collection, I don’t wish to continue to own it. I can’t take it with me, can I? Absolutely it’s for sale—so long as it’s not broken up. I’m happy being flat out here, but eventually, other people should be involved. I don’t wish to work seven days a week for the rest of my life… I’m seventy next month, and there are a lot of things I haven’t done. And I should… I should do them.”