Although it was overshadowed by our visit to Tipoteca the following week, it was not only the Italian take on the printing museum that we experienced during our trip to Europe: our first destination, to Basel, was inspired by the opportunity to visit Basler Papiermühle – the “Swiss Museum for Paper, Writing and Printing” – that’s located steps from the Rhine on Basel’s waterfront.
Like Tipoteca, the Papiermühle is a pleasantly “hands on” museum; while it’s not quite got the “you can try out anything” wonders of Tipoteca, it is full of opportunities to try out things like paper making, writing with a quill pen, setting type and printing.
Basler Papiermühle is a short 20-minute walk from central Basel; it’s in a very pleasant area of the city, and you might want to plan to spend extra time walking along the Rhine and visiting nearby art galleries and shops if you can.
We arrived at the museum on a bone-chillingly-damp Sunday afternoon; as it turns out, I’d read the information on the museum’s website incorrectly, and we were two hours early, as it doesn’t open until 2:00 p.m. We used the extra time to take a quick run through the nearby Museum für Gegenwartskunst and to have a quick lunch at the Papiermühle’s restaurant (very nice food; as shockingly expensive as eating out anywhere else in Basel).
When 2:00 p.m. arrived we were primed and ready for action. Our first stop was the paper making hall, where an actual water-mill-powered “beater” turns rag into pulp
When the pulp comes out the other side, ready for turning into paper, visitors get in on the action, taking a screen, complete with the Papiermühle logo watermark, and dipping into the vat of pulp, evenly spreading pulp across the screen, and then removing from the water, turning over onto felt, and then squeezing the water out with a press:
With the water removed the sheets of damp paper are placed in heat (inside something that looks like a T-shirt press) and a few minutes later they emerge as, well, paper. The effect is rather amazing, in part because the final product isn’t some weird paper-like creation, but rather something real that you’d be happy to write a letter home on.
Next step was the several rooms devoted to the art of writing. We got our names written in Chinese by a calligrapher, and then, in the next room, got to write a message with a quill pen, and then select a seal and hand it over to a woman who dribbled hot wax on the folded note and impressed the seal:
After writing came printing: the Papiermühle has an excellent collection of type, casting machines and presses along with exhibits illustrating the operating of each. The highlights of the printing exhibition were watching a man cast a Gutenberg-style letter “O” by hand from molten lead and, especially, the opportunity to set type and see it printed, much like a similar workshop at Tipoteca:
We also got the chance to try out a simple table-top platen press, and to explore the museum’s excellent collection of presses large and small.
From printing we finished up on the top floor with book binding, the only aspect of the museum that, alas, didn’t include a hand-on component, leaving us to simply watch a woman go through the process of assembling a book: interesting, but not as interesting as it would have been should we have been allowed to do it ourselves.
A quick trip through the museum bookshop (they have an online shop as well) and we were back into the chilly Basel evening.
While the Basler Papiermühle is more “museumy” than Tipoteca, it’s still an excellent showcase for art and science of paper, writing, typesetting, printing and bookbinding, and if you’ve an interest in any of these, and an afternoon in Basel, I highly recommend a visit.