One day you’re in. The next day you’re out.
Heidi Klum’s golden rule of Project Runway fashion is also the reality for the characters that comprise signs. One day you are an L or an R proudly pointing the way towards an attraction along with your fellow letters. The next day you are discarded.
Usually old signs end up in landfills or incinerators. But an especially lucky, and especially artistic, few have their letters go on display in museums. There people look at them not for any direction they can provide but for the works of art that they are.
Here’s a review of Spot Cool Stuff’s favorite unusual typography museums:
The Museum of Letters
The Berlin Museum of Letters, or Buchstabenmuseum in local parlance, has as its official mission: “The preservation and documentation of letterforms.”
Since 2006 the museum has been doing exactly that with a little too much success. Letters from old store and factory signs pour into the museum from all over Europe. One imagines these letters are coming in faster than the curators can figure out what to do when them. While some of the characters are displayed in organized exhibits, others have seemingly been thrown into whatever corner, nook or garden space (pic, above) has empty space. Museum purists will be put off by this haphazardness but somehow Spot Cool Stuff finds it charming.
The Boneyard at the Neon Museum
The Boneyard is a part of the Neon Museum, which also runs the Freemont Street Gallery of neon signs and administers the Neon Signs Project, which protects signs currently in use. But it is the The Neon Boneyard that will light up your unusual Vegas travel experience.
The Boneyard portion of the Neon Museum is less of a museum and more like a part of a post-apocalyptic world à la Mad Max. Neon signs that once brightly shone the way towards glitzy casinos have been dumped unceremoniously on a flat, barren piece of earth. It makes for some superb photography. It also, surprisingly, makes for a fascinating tour. The excellent volunteer guides seem to know every back story about every discarded neon sign. Listening to them, the signs spring to life in a way that even plugging them back in could not accomplish.
At the time of our visit to the Boneyard, an on-site visitor center was under construction. Once completed in the summer of 2012 it will surely make visiting more convenient. It might also take away from the Boneyard’s surreal middle-of-nowhere nature. For that reason, Consider going sooner rather than later.
Neon Boneyard info tips
If you go: You must book your tour in advance! Tours cost $15 plus a guide tip. Bring water, wear sun screen and plan on spending around two hours in the exposed desert.
When: Tours run year-round but can be unpleasantly hot in the summer time.
Family friendly? Not really. Though kids are welcome, Boneyard tours are long and hot; most children will find them uninteresting. Also, there were no restroom facilities at the time of writing.
For your bookshelf: Vintage Neon
Hamilton Wood Type Museum
Two Rivers, Wisconsin USA
For over 100 years, from 1880 until 19851, the Hamilton factory in quaint town of Two Rivers, Wisconsin made wood type for the printing industry. Then the computer age arrived, and printing from wooden letters was seemingly rendered obsolete. The Hamilton factory could have easily have shuttered its doors like so many others did across the American Midwest in the 1980s. Instead, the factory reinvented itself as the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. The hope was to create a small handful of jobs and preserve the factory’s machinery and over one million pieces of wood engraved typeface.
Then, a funny thing happen. People showed up at the museum. Lots of people. And not only to look at the exhibits. Artists, designers and fashionistas flocked there to learn something from the wood carved letters that computers could not teach.
The story of the factory-turned-museum is told in the excellent documentary Typeface, available for instant streaming viewing at Amazon. (See the trailer below.)
But even better than watching the documentary is visiting the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. Take a tour and see letter craftspeople at work. Poke around the museum’s drawers and exhibit nooks to see photographs, wood-carved fonts and prints. Join a conference or take one of many workshops that are attended by novice artists and professional designers alike.
In fact, none other than the head clothing designers of the Target superstore were recently at the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. There they gained the knowledge and inspiration to create their Vintage Varsity line. The slogan for the collection is Cool Never Fades.
We completely agree.
1 Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps not, 1985 was also the year the Apple Macintosh was introduced.
Trailer for the documentary Typeface:
The Type Museum
Sadly, The Type Museum has been closed since 2006. Closed, as in locked shut. But not closed, as in gone. The exhibits at still at the museum’s location near the Stockwell tube station, put in figurative (or literal?) mothballs until the museum finds funding to operate.
What made the Type Museum cool was not only the typography it had on display but its collection of old printing machines. During Spot Cool Stuff’s 2005 visit, museum guests could use many of them to produce their own printed creation.
We include the museum in this review in the hopes that it will find a way to reopen its doors soon. Visit the Type Museum Society for updates and info on what you can do to help.