Monday, June 23, 2014

A Museum Like None Other president Marian Calabro at Antwerp's
Plantin-Moretus Museum. This room contains the world's
oldest printing presses, dating from around 1600.

The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, ranks as perhaps the supreme museumgoing experience of my life. Surely it's in the top 5. What a gem! A Unesco World Heritage Site, this 34-room edifice was the home and business of a publishing family from the 1500s to the late 1800s. Words can’t do justice to the wealth of company history displayed and archived within these walls.
Here's how canny the Plantins and Moretuses were as businesspeople: they published the list of books deemed "forbidden to read" by the Catholic Church, and they also published a number of the actual books. After all, if the books didn't exist, how could the Church outlaw them? They also published the world's first multilingual Bible and compiled the first Dutch language dictionary. Medical students throughout Europe learned to care for the ill and do surgery by studying the anatomical engravings in Plantin textbooks.

Labore et Constantia was the firm's motto.
Flash photography is not allowed (rightly so), so I burned out my camera battery as I tried to grab visual memories. I marveled to see the thumbnail sketch of a title page, then a fuller sketch, then the copperplate engraving (remember, everything has to be engraved backwards), then the press proof, and finally the title page in the actual book--all in one display case. (Two of these photos appear below.) Labore et Constantia -- work and constancy -- was the Plantin motto.

I particularly enjoyed the intact Proofreader's Room. The audio tour noted that "correctors," as proofreaders were called, were the company's most intellectual employees: they had to have a thorough command of up to nine languages and be conversant with the commerce and culture of the day. "Productive in practically every field of knowledge, the Officina Plantinana was responsible for the global dissemination of the newest discoveries in the areas in the areas of the developing sciences, the new vision of man that the entry of humanism afforded, and the diffusion of new artistic trends, then only possible through the medium of the printed--and preferably illustrated--book," as the Visitors' Guide says. The English version of the audio tour, done in British English, offers a wealth of corporate storytelling.

This short report barely scratches the surface. I'm ready to return to Antwerp just to spend another day here. Watch for more corporate storytelling from Belgium in upcoming weeks.