Basel's Paper Museum: an Artist's Delight / by Jeannine Cook

Paper making and the history of paper have always represented an integral part of my love of art and sense of identity as an artist, especially as a metalpoint artist using paper on which to draw.  So it was with eager steps that I wended my way down the sunlit St. Albans hill to the Rhine banks in Basel, Switzerland, and went to the Paper Museum.

 The entrance to Basel's Paper Museum

The entrance to Basel's Paper Museum

The St. Albans district was renowned for its paper mills from the Middle Ages onwards.  Cluniac monks in the 12th century had lengthened a canal to install twelve water-powered mills for the St. Albans monastery in this district where water tumbles down from the Alps to the Rhine River. By the 1400s, ten of those mills were converted to paper making. The paper mill that was converted to the Paper Museum in 1980 was set up by Anton Gallician in 1453; it operated until 1924.  Gallician lived in the building that forms the main part of the museum, with wonderful oak beams and posts, panelled rooms, mullioned windows and painted wooden ceilings in his living quarters upstairs.

 The Gallician Mill, part of the Paper Museum

The Gallician Mill, part of the Paper Museum

A number of events converged to make Basel an important centre of paper-making and subsequently printing. The secret of paper-making had slowly spread to Europe from China. Historically, Cai Lun, an imperial eunuch official of the Chinese Han dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) purportedly was the first person in 105 AD to devise a pulp of mulberry leaves, fish nets, old rags and other things that became the basic recipe for paper. Archaeologically, the earliest extant paper fragment was unearthed at Fangmatan (Gansu province), and was likely part of a map, dated to 179-41 BC. By the 8th century, the secret of paper-making had spread through Asia and had reached Central Asia and the Middle East. The Islamic world made improvements to enable bulk paper-making and slowly, slowly, paper-making came to Spain in the 11th century, France in the 12th century and other countries soon afterwards, with a paper mill set up in Switzerland in 1432.

In Basel, not only were the paper mills set up, but in 1460, seven years after Gallician set up his paper mill, Basel’s University was founded by Pope Pius II, the oldest university in Switzerland. At the same time, other great changes were happening.    The convocation of the Council of Basel from 1431-1448 had signaled the beginning of the Reformation; by 1529, Johannes Oekolampad ensured Basel had become a centre of humanism and Reform learning.  Meanwhile in Mainz (present-day Germany), Johannes Gutenberg was the first person to use a printing press and moveable type to produce his famed printed Bible in 1439.  This technology spread quickly and Basel thus became a very important centre for paper production, printing and humanistic learning.

 The huge water wheel which powers the paper mill at the Museum

The huge water wheel which powers the paper mill at the Museum

I sensed that this small, neat paper Museum was going to be of great interest as I passed the huge waterwheel churning briskly in the narrow canal by the entrance to the Museum.  As I entered Gallician’s mill, I was as engaged as were the sturdy wooden cogs interlocking with the outside water wheel, which in turn were powering the six stamping units pounding away at the pulp.  Their staccato song was the backdrop to all the activity laid out on the ground floor of this Museum-cum-commercial enterprise which also works with people with disabilities and runs workshops for the public.

 The mighty wooden stamping units pounding the rag pulp, driven by the waterwheel's action

The mighty wooden stamping units pounding the rag pulp, driven by the waterwheel's action

From the pounding to the grinding in a limestone 1660 Hollander chest, the rag pulp is steadily reduced to a milky, sized (with animal glue) slurry, which ends up in a large vat.  There, the vatman dips in his tray-like mould, spreads the pulp slurry evenly and then drains it, before carefully peeling off the paper. 

 The vat full of paper pulp and beside it, a mould ready, waiting to be dipped by the vatman

The vat full of paper pulp and beside it, a mould ready, waiting to be dipped by the vatman

 Stirring the paper pulp prior to dipping the mould

Stirring the paper pulp prior to dipping the mould

The coucher places each sheet on a layer of felt and a pile of paper-felt layers is then pressed by hand to extract the water.  The paper sheets are then hung to dry on lines or in a drying cylinder. Of course, the paper is beautiful and tactile: I could not resist buying some small sheets to try out for metalpoint.

 The vatman working with moulds

The vatman working with moulds

 Dipping a paper mould

Dipping a paper mould

 Using a hand-press to squeeze out the moisture from the couched paper and felt layers

Using a hand-press to squeeze out the moisture from the couched paper and felt layers

 A very early version of paper press at the Museum

A very early version of paper press at the Museum

After being introduced to the actual hand making paper process as it was traditionally done, the Museum then moves one into all sorts of other fascinating dimensions related to paper.  Watermarks of the Basel paper mills, the moulds with their fine wire mesh and watermark design woven into the mesh so that the paper is thinner there and the watermark shows up against the light.

 An example of early watermarked paper at the Museum

An example of early watermarked paper at the Museum

 Another example of historic water-marked paper at the Museum

Another example of historic water-marked paper at the Museum

Beyond, through a medieval stone arched doorway, you go to a rag cellar, where the old rags were prepared to be broken down into pulp. 

 The wonderful old arched doorway leading on towards the rag cellar in the Museum

The wonderful old arched doorway leading on towards the rag cellar in the Museum

Most people would never think of the health implications of something like paper-making.  Old rags, garments and other fibrous pieces were collected by rag-men; paper mills required a huge amount of cotton, linen or other natural fibres for their production.  Women were employed to break down the rags, cutting them into tiny pieces and preparing them for the rotting-down process. They worked standing frequently on wet floors, in clouds of fibres in badly ventilated cellars, with the putrefying rags further polluting the damp air – not good.

Before paper was invented, man had found other materials on which to make marks. From Stone Age times on, tapa was made from the pith of fresh plants in equatorial regions, for clothes and decorative applications, but not for writing. Papyrus, wood, stones, tree bark and clay tablets all played their role down the ages, as well as parchment.  Basically, paper displaced them all after it was invented some 2000 years ago.  The Museum took one on seamlessly to the history of writing, with imaginative displays to help one appreciate the myriad scripts, hieroglyphs and signs that man has devised down the ages to communicate.  In our digital age, we take so much for granted some form of writing that I doubt most of us stop to think about its role in our world.   But its invention helped organize human societies. It forms the basis for science and literature.  It allows communication beyond the frontiers of time and space, and ensures that there are records that endure.  In essence, writing enables us to fix words and thoughts in time and space, and thus represents what we know as history.

Even the way script is formed in European history tells us a great deal.  For instance, in the 8th century, Merovingian script deteriorated and writing declined greatly because that was a time of famines, wars, invasions and tremendous upheavals in Europe.  Only a few monasteries managed still to function and thus writing hung on in their scriptoria thanks to their monks.  However, Charlemagne, in the 9th century, founded many new monasteries and thus gave impetus to writing again, ensuring the continuation of a clear, elegant Carolingian script until the 12th century. The scripts evolved over time, allowing today’s experts to date early documents (along with watermarks and types of paper), and by the 15th century, there were various different scripts being used.  Meanwhile, writing workshops had been established from late medieval times for people to learn to write so that books and other secular manuscripts could be produced. Professional scribes – 60 of them for 200,000 Parisians – set up shop in 13th century Paris to write the legal and fiscal documents that society increasingly required. After Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and moveable type, however, things changed. When it took a year for medieval monks to prepare the parchment and then copy and illuminate a Bible, it was obvious that mechanical printing was the winner of the contest.

 A medieval illuminated manuscript at the Museum

A medieval illuminated manuscript at the Museum

The printing presses shown in the Museum are a wonderful selection from different times.  Type and type setting are also a large section, truly a printer’s dream to see. 

 Printing presses at the Museum

Printing presses at the Museum

Upstairs on the top floor of this lovely old building is a spacious book bindery, complete with a paper marbling studio. By that time, however, I was getting overwhelmed!

What impressed me about this small museum was the scope and span of time that the displays illustrated. This Paper Museum allowed me to appreciate vividly how paper, writing and printing underpin the entire world structure that I take for granted on a daily basis.  As an artist, I love the sensuous character of rag paper, but there are so many more dimensions to the circumstances that have enabled me to use this material as a drawing surface and as a means of expressing myself in metalpoint drawings.  I came away from the Museum enthralled and humbled.