An Exhibition of Printing at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge was planned for May 6 to June 23, 1940, taking the year 1940 as the quincentenary of Gutenberg's invention of printing, just as had been done in 1840 for the quatercentenary, in 1740 for the tricentennial, and in 1640 for the bicentennial. Exhibitions of this kind normally require years of advance planning, but from the brief account in Nicolas Barker's Stanley Morison (1972) it appears that the prospectus for this exhibition was sent out only at the beginning of March, 1940:
"At the beginning of March a prospectus was circulated to librarians, members of the Bibliographical Scoiety, the Roxburghe Club, and others.
"Though more than half Europe is at present too tragically absorbed in the future of its civilisation to be able to pay much thought to its past, the five-hundredth anniversary of Gutenberg's invention none the less demands to be recognized. The conditions which make it impractical to hold a worthy exhibition in London are happily absent in Cambridge; and plans for stage here a modest tribute to Gutenberg's memory have developed into a resolution to make good the general deficiency with a major exhibition.
"The theme of the exhibition was then set out; a full representation of every aspect of human thought and action served by Gutenberg's invention; 'wherever civilization has called upon the craft of printing from movable type to promote its ends, there is subject matter for this exhibition'.
"The response for the request for loans was conspicuously prompt and generous. Nearly 100 lenders produced over 600 exhibits... " (Barker, op. cit., 376-77).
According to Brooke Crutchley, "The Gutenberg Exhibition at Cambridge, 1940," Matrix 12 (1992) 77-82:
"The decision to celebrate the quincentenary of Gutenberg's invention by holding an exhibition in Cambridge in 1940 was largely an act of defiance. The outbreak of war in September 1939 and the swift conquest of Poland were followed by an uneasy quiet in western Europe while armies lined up against each other in preparation for the battle that was to come. Meanwhile the Fitzwilliam Museum had sent its principal treasures to Wales for safe keeping, the windows of King's College chapel were boarded up, civilisation seemed to have been put on ice. An exhibition to show the contribution that printing had made over five hundred years, and would continue to make when the madness was over, might be seen as a challenge to the forces of destruction."
As a guide and record of the exhibition, an unillustrated catalogue describing 641 items was published by Cambridge University Press and offered for sale for one shilling. On the cover was an emblem symbolizing Gutenberg's type designed by wood engraver Reynolds Stone.
The Foreword to the catalogue read as follows:
"There is no moral to this exhibition. It aims at portraying, as objectively as possible, the uses to which printing from movable type has been put since Gutenberg and his associates invented it five hundred years ago; the spread of knowledge more quickly and accurately than was possible before, the storing of human experience, the providing of entertainment, the simplication of the increasingly complicated business of living. Those books, papers, and other printing have been chosen (so far as the difficulties of the times would permit) which made most effective use of the medium of type; in other words, those which, composed and multiplied, most strongly influenced people and events. Others have been chosen for their illustration of events and trends of particular importance or interest; others again for their intrinsic curiosity as examples of the exploitation of print. All are shewn so far as possible in the original editions in which they were first presented to the world.
"The exhibition has been designed therefore to illustrate the development of man's use of movable type as a tool; its spread from Mainz through the countries of the world, through all the fields of knowledge, through the whole range of man's activities. Running through the story another theme presents itself and draws occasional comment--the development of the actual form of printing. The technical display deals with the old and modern methods fo type-founding and composition, and briefly illustrates the development of type design. That part of the exhibition is education; for the rest, though there is much to learn from it, it does not set out to teach. It is simply an illustration to that proud but unattributed saying: With my twenty-six soldiers of lead I have conquered the world."
Persons involved with organizing the exhibition and writing catalogue entries included writer on typography Beatrice Warde, antiquarian bookseller and writer Percy Muir, of Elkin Mathews Ltd., typographer John Dreyfus, writer and antiquarian bookseller John Carter, economist and book collector John Maynard Keynes, and scientist, sinologist and historian of science Joseph Needham. According to Sebastian Carter, "Printing & the Mind of Man," Matrix 20 (2000) 172-180, typographer Stanley Morison, typographic advisor to Cambridge University Press, was involved in the planning, but the bulk of the organization of the exhbiition was done by the Assistant University Printer, Brooke Crutchley, helped by John Dreyfus. The largest private lender to the exhibition was stockbroker (later intelligence agent), book collector and writer, Ian Fleming, who had pioneered in collecting influential books, or those which, in the words of Sebastian Carter, had "started something."
Among several innovative aspects of the exhibition was a display of books published in the year 1859, including, among others, Darwin On the Origin of Species, Mill On Liberty, Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management.
The catalogue did not appear until June 1940, after the exhibition had been closed on May 16, only 10 days after it had opened, because of war. It was reprinted in the following month. In my copy of the second printing the following statement appeared:
"As this catalogue was about to go to press, a sudden change in the war situation made it appear advisable to close the Exhibition when it had been open only ten days. The catalogue was printed off, nevertheless, so that copies might be sent to all who had helped and others be available for sale. The demand proved greater than had been expected, and this reprint was in hand in which a few errors and oversights have been made good."
When I originally wrote this entry for HistoryofInformation.com on October 25, 2011, I had never previously seen a copy of the 1940 exhibition catalogue, in spite of my roughly 50 years experience in the world of books. Until obtaining and reading the catalogue I was unaware how much this forgotten exhibition, held early in World War II, had influenced the 1963 exhibition, Printing and the Mind of Man. The overlap in choices between the 1940 and 1963 catalogues is significant, especially as Carter & Muir were heavily involved in both exhibitions held 23 years apart, and some of the same lenders, especially Ian Fleming, contributed notable items to both exhibitions. It would be useful some day to compare the selections of the two exhibitions carefully. Before doing that I would observe that the organizers of the 1940 exhibition must have been well aware of the significance of Hitler's writings leading up to World War II, as they included the February 24, 1920 Munich Auszug aus dem Programm der national-sozialistischen Deutschen Arbeiterpartei as item 620 in their exhibition, and Hitler's Mein Kampf as item number 623.