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Origins of the MOW

Alan Cole reflects on how the Museum of Writing began

When I was at school, I liked writing anything and everything, from poems to tall stories, the latter with me as the hero, of course. One day, a teacher said to me, ‘It doesn’t matter how clever you are if nobody can read your writing’. This led to me spending all my holidays at the British Library looking at letters from notable scientists, literati, artists, etc. I came to the conclusion that they wrote no more legibly than I did, but the spark had been struck and, at the age of fifteen, I started to collect anything to do with writing.

The idea of a ‘Museum of Writing’ was conceived by me in October 1955 and included the design of the building and the layout with dioramas and showcases full of unique pieces. This was rather grandiose, as the collection at the time consisted of just three items: a Parker 51 fountain pen; a letter purporting to have been written by the secretary of Charles Dickens (actually it turned out to be written by Dickens himself); and a 15th Century manuscript that was torn and repaired with earlier manuscripts, obtained from an elderly gentleman who supplemented his pension by making lampshades out of vellum and parchment. However, the collection then grew rapidly. This was because items could be picked up for a song, as nobody was really interested in them; this included many objects from a skip on the forecourt of the British Museum. In the mid-1990s a Museum of Writing (MoW) committee was formed consisting of experts in various writing-related fields from the British Library, the British Museum, the Writing Equipment Society, the Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association, and an individual, Philip Poole, who had one of the world’s largest collection of pen-nibs. In 1999 Poole died leaving the majority of his collection to the MoW. Eventually in November 2010, exactly fifty-five years from its conception, the MoW was obtained by the Institute of English Studies, University of London, thanks to Professors Simon Eliot and Warwick Gould. Now called the Museum of Writing Research Collection, it consists of over one hundred thousand items covering the history of writing from its beginnings to the present day. It has been acknowledged as one of the world’s most comprehensive writing-related collections.

Over the years, items from the collection have been used in films such as Oliver!, Miss Potter, and Bright Star; and on television – and even on radio. Items have been lent to British Library, British Museum, and Tate Gallery exhibitions, and have provided illustrations for many books and articles. In addition, materials from the MoW has been the subject of numerous lectures at, among others, the London Rare Book School and the London International Palaeography Summer School, the Universities of Bath, Reading, Newcastle, and at the Sorbonne. Images of items have even been incorporated in the world’s first circular, CD-ROM postage stamps that were issued in Bhutan in 2008 (these stamps were mini-cd roms; when affixed to a large envelope, the cd could be used as a stamp). Our most recent loans were in 2019 to the British Library for its ‘Writing: Making your Mark’ exhibition. This Virtual Museum of Writing is what we have been aiming at for some time and now it is up and running, thanks to the sterling endeavours of Simon Eliot and Tom Miles, our tech wizard. In the future we hope to be able to expand the VMoW to include many more of the items from the Museum of Writing Research Collection.