Confusion of tongues in print

Museum Boerhaave presents 330 years of typography

Publisher Brill throwing out the lead letters.Museum Boerhaave

By Thomas Blondeau

Academic publisher Brill specialised in exotic type very early on; now it's introducing its own font.

Let's face it, you probably use it daily but you have not got anything interesting to report about it. Of course, among Internet users, it's the done thing to disparage that playful font, Comic Sans. Don't use it on your CV, that much is clear. And you can probably identify Times New Roman, but can you name Minion, used for this text? Or Glasgow, in the introduction?
If you can, I strongly recommend a visit to the new exhibition at the Dutch National Museum for the History of Science and Medicine, Museum Boerhaave. And if you can't, you should go anyway because it is time you learnt to appreciate the craftsmanship and skill that underlies a font.
The exhibition highlights the history of Koninklijke Uitgeverij Brill. This publishing house, still in business today, was founded when Jordaan Luchtmans registered as a member of the Leiden Book Guild in 1683. Two years later, he published his first illustrated work: Historia insectorum generalis by natural scientist Jan Swammerdam. A tiny microscope, manufactured by one of Luchtmans' relatives by marriage, is presented alongside the displayed tome.
To prove that the publisher knew how to deal with Arabic script, it published a book about a sultan in 1732. Two years earlier, a descendant of Luchtmans had been appointed the academy's printer so that he was allowed publish the majority of the dissertations and inaugural lectures.
In the middle of the nineteenth century – the firm had by now passed to E.J. Brill – the work Het Gebed des Heeren in veertien talen [The Lord's Prayer in Fourteen Languages] was published to as a showpiece of its expertise in exotic letters. The Lord's Prayer was published in Hebrew, Samaritan, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Coptic, Syrian, Arabic, Persian, Tartar, Turkish, Javanese, Malaysian and Greek.
Between the displays of books, you can watch a couple of television programmes featuring the publisher when it still did the printing. The speed with which the compositors collected the lead letter punches to print a text they could not understand is amazing. Nowadays, texts can be accessed more easily and faster by means of CD ROMs and websites, but the barrenness of this part of the exhibition illustrates the decline of this charming craft.
The exhibition concludes with the projection on a wall of a newly designed font: the Brill. This typeface allows the publisher to reproduce all languages using Latin characters and various accents and dots. Can you imagine how extremely finicky that work must have been for centuries?

Literate & Learned
Brill: 330 Years of Typography in the Service
of Scholarship
Museum Boerhaave
Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
(until 19 May 2013), € 7.50,

Admission is free for students

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