The Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum is not of our time. The space itself—a former steel factory in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, that overlooks Lake Michigan—evokes an era when industrial manufacturing reigned supreme. But it’s what’s inside the museum that transports you to a time of pounding machines, toxic inks and shellac, sawdust and wood chips, with workers bent over cases of typefaces.

The museum covers 80,000 square feet and houses 1.5 million pieces of type, 6,000 wooden printing plates, and 300 vintage wood type fonts, but it is as much about today as yesterday. The Hamilton is a working museum, where first-time visitors and longtime patrons alike can get their hands dirty. Ten of the museum’s 62 printing presses work, and visitors can learn entry level typesetting or basic letterpress printing. The artists in residence proof and sort incoming type collections and catalog hand-carved blocks, some of them centuries old. It is, in short, heaven on Earth for today’s artisanal printers, typographers, and graphic designers, most of whom were weaned on clean and quiet digital tools.

The Hamilton isn’t the world’s only hands-on printing museum. In Europe, Italy’s Tipoteca Italiana, Germany’s Gutenberg Museum, and Belgium’s Plantin Moretus Museum offer a direct link to the larger history of European culture and politics. Here in the states, the International Printing Museum near Los Angeles, the Andover Museum of Printing in not far from Boston, the Printing Museum of Houston, and other smaller venues curate tantalizing collections of printed matter and equipment.

The Hamilton is, however, the world’s largest repository of vintage wood type and the country’s biggest typographical museum. It opened in 1999 with the mission of conserving and commemorating the work of the J.E. Hamilton Holly Wood Type Co. The factory, founded by J. Edward Hamilton in 1880, was at one time the largest manufacturer of wood type in the US. It has since become a popular destination for font fanatics. The museum, which holds fast to its conservationist roots, is the heart a growing movement devoted to preserving the practice of hand-hewn typography.

The Hamilton owes much of its pedagogic ethos to museum director Jim Moran and artistic director Bill Moran. The third-generation printers began volunteering at the Hamilton in 2001. The museum hired them in 2009 to “help the museum tell its story.” Three years ago, they led an international movement to save the museum when it was forced to leave its historic factory building. To date, their jobs have involved creating the museum’s visual brand, maintaining its equipment, improving its displays, creating its merchandise, publishing a book, running workshops, and archiving the museum’s collections, to list a few things. Jim Moran describes their occupation as “a pleasant mayhem.”

Together with assistant director Stephanie Carpenter, the Morans are driven to preserve and promote the relevancy of handcrafted type in the digital age. But they’re not Luddites; their mission is buoyed, in large part, by modern technologies. The museum joined forces with P22, a digital type foundry that specializes in reviving historical typefaces. Together, they’ve produced the HWT Collection, an all-digital assortment of typefaces based entirely on the museum’s archives of rare wood type fonts. Last year, the museum launched an iPad app that tests users’ font-recognition skills. Meanwhile, plans to photograph and digitize much of the museum’s inventory are well under way.

At the same time, the museum’s directors recognize that images on a screen are no replacement for the multi-sensory experience of handling ink, type, and paper—and so they continuously strive to put as many artifacts as possible in visitors’ hands. Patrons do more than learn that typefaces were once made of wood and metal—they hold them in their hands. In setting types themselves, they come to know their textures, understand their shapes, and realize their surprising heft. The museum commissioned popular contemporary designers like Matthew Carter, Erik Spiekermann, Nick Sherman, and Louise Fili, to create new wood typefaces. For more than 500 years, print media was the glue that bound the image and message of the human experience together. The Hamilton’s directors believe that history is best accessed through one’s fingertips, and infuse that idea throughout the museum’s interactive exhibits, workshops, and events.

The annual Wayzgoose conference is among the Hamilton’s most popular gatherings. The affair’s unusual name refers to an annual outing, once organized by master printers for their workers, that marked the end of summer and the start of the season during which work was performed by candlelight. Today, says Bill Moran, the Hamilton’s Wayzgoose conferences are for people “who want to geek out on all things wood type.” It’s an exuberant mash-up of typeface and graphic designers, printers and history buffs. Since 2009, it has attracted hundreds of true believers every year, from the U.S. and beyond, to share new techniques and discoveries.

Bridging the digital and analog gap “has gone a long way,” says Bill Moran, “to building awareness and sharing the museum’s treasure trove.” And it contributes to what the Moran brothers assert is “preserving a way of communicating that still speaks to a new audience and needs to be saved and reconsidered for the high quality of its art.” Art or not, the museum’s brand of total immersion in wood type is a lot more fun than repetitively selecting type from a pull-down font menu.

The Hamilton engages visitors with a narrative that includes the story of visual communication and its place in history. It also strives to preserve a great American craft, to remind museum-goers “that we have been surrounded by it and use it daily,” says Bill Moran. The Hamilton, he adds “is an appreciation of words and their power,” and a mechanistic look at “how that power is achieved.”

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Inside the Hamilton Type Museum, Where You’re the Printer