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VMoW beta version

The Virtual Museum of Writing should have been launched as a completed project in the summer of 2020. COVID-19 and its consequences meant that all work on both its contents and its software stopped in March. We are not likely to be able to complete the project until the end of this year or the beginning of next. Given this, we have decided to offer VMoW in its beta version so that scholars and students of the Institute of English Studies, of the School of Advanced Study – and all those beyond who have an interest in the subject – can explore and use it.

Needless to say, we would welcome any feedback from users that might help us improve the VMoW before its finalised version is launched. One caveat: although we had some generous initial funding from the School of Advanced Study, all the work since has been done on a voluntary basis. For this reason, radical or expensive changes in the software are not possible.

Please send your feedback to me at the following email address: iesevents@sas.ac.uk

Simon Eliot



The Museum of Writing (MoW) is a rare and unusual collection of artefacts that reflects the culture and history of writing throughout the world from c. 3000 BC to AD 2010. The collection has objects which not only demonstrate how different scripts have developed through the centuries and on different continents but also how writing from around the world has employed different surfaces and substances for different purposes.

The Museum of Writing (MoW) is owned by the Institute of English Studies (IES), which is part of the School of Advanced Study in the University of London. MoW is a large assemblage of artefacts amassed over more than five decades by Mr Alan Cole. As such it is a highly personal collection, which sets out vividly to illustrate the history of writing over the last five thousand years. It was acquired by the Institute with the help of Mr Cole and his family in November 2010.

The collection is considerable, comprising around 100,000 items illustrating the history of writing over some 5,000 years. Some parts of the collection consist of individual, distinctive items such as a Sumerian pictographic clay tablet, a Roman inkwell, and a scrap of very early paper from Baghdad. Other sections consist of many small individual pieces, such as a quite remarkable collection of nineteenth-century decorative pen nibs.

Given the size and diversity of the collection – and the fact that it is housed in the University’s Senate House in central London – there was no possibility of finding the space to put even a modest portion of it on public display. Despite its name, therefore, the Museum of Writing in its entirety remains as a research collection in Senate House Library. Indeed, formally it is known as ‘The Museum of Writing Research Collection’. It is available on request to those undertaking scholarly research in the history of writing and allied disciplines. However, both Alan Cole and the IES were very keen to make available to the public a representative range of artefacts that would offer a richly-illustrated introduction to the history of writing. Hence the creation of the ‘Virtual Museum of Writing’ (VMoW).

Apart from the marvellous array of extraordinary objects it offers, the VMoW is distinguished by two features. Firstly, it puts a great emphasis on the personal nature of the collection. Lots of museums and galleries had their origins in individual collections but, given that most of these were long in the past, the voices of the collectors have been lost. We were fortunate that Alan Cole remained hale and hearty, so was able to provide explanations for how, why, and in what circumstances he acquired certain objects. Much of this information is now contained in the descriptions attached to some of the individual artefacts in VMoW, or in the interviews with Alan Cole that are available on the Virtual Museum’s home page. Secondly, and partly determined by the above, this is a collection which is dynamic. Some of the items on display are subject to academic discussion (and we make clear on each record where this is the case). As such the collection is, as any proper academic discipline is, subject to questioning and to re-evaluation. This makes the VMoW in part an exercise in crowd-sourcing. Thus we welcome contributions in the form of additional information or re-interpretation sent by users through the home page. All such communications will be acknowledged and additions and / or corrections, if necessary, will be made.


The VMoW is made up in part of a number of smaller collections. The three most important are:

The Appleton Collection

In 2009, Alan Cole was approached by the family of the late Mrs Winifred Appleton who offered her collection of inkwells to the Museum of Writing. This offer was gratefully accepted.  It consists of over one hundred inkwells and associated items covering about two hundred years of production.  It is known as ‘The Winifred Appleton Inkwell Collection’.

The Philip Poole Collection

This best described by Alan Cole:

‘I first met Philip Poole when I visited his shop in Drury Lane during my lunchtime in the early 1960s. Philip Poole was known internationally as ‘His Nibs’, not only because of his unique collection of pen nibs, associated equipment and ephemera, but his unmatched knowledge of the subject. Philip began with a shop in Drury Lane, which was the subject of many articles in magazines, and was once used in a period film. Philip then moved to Cornellison’s in Great Russell Street, where he worked until his death in 1999. He was a founder member and long-term chairman of the Writing Equipment Society and on the committee of the Museum of Writing. He had been approached by numerous universities and museums worldwide with a view to purchasing his collection but he wished it to remain in England. After his death a small number of his more valuable items were stolen. In order to prevent further loss and to follow Philip’s wish that his collection should form part of the family inheritance, the Cole Collection purchased the more valuable of the remaining items, which included the 1840 ‘Bird nib’. The Poole family then generously donated the remaining pen nibs (over 100,000 in total) plus the artefacts and ephemera to the Museum of Writing.’

The ‘Titanic’ Collection

These draughtsman's tools were donated anonymously to the museum in 2004, via a neighbour of the donor in California. Some of these, notably a set of brass technical drawing tools manufactured by the Eugene Dietzgen Drafting Company around 1900, were used by the donor’s father in his work on the design of the RMS Titanic in Belfast. Later, they were used in the design work on R. J. Mitchell’s Spitfire fighter at Supermarine Aviation.
After the Second World War the family emigrated to United States. The donor qualified in the same profession and used these and other tools, which are also part of the collection, in his work. He saw the importance of the ‘Titanic’ tools, and kept them safe.


Any image in the VMoW can be used under a Creative Commons license, so long as its source is acknowledged. The one exception to this is the Ruskin Collection, the image rights of which are reserved by Alan Cole.

Those requiring a higher resolution image can apply to the VMoW.