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Matthew Boulton inkwellThe 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.