‘Marks on a Page’ exhibition to explore long history of printed communications

Communication is so simple and immediate today that it’s difficult to comprehend the struggle our human ancestors faced.

An upcoming exhibition in the Blackwell History of Education Museum will recognize those challenges and celebrate the achievements of those people throughout history who overcame obstacles in sharing printed words and representative imagery.

“Marks on a Page,” which opens this summer, traces the journey from ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Mayan and Sumerian people who inscribed messages on rocks and clay tablets through typewriters and word processors.

“The page has really changed over the thousands of years that writing has been in existence,” says Patrick Roberts, an associate professor in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations who serves as faculty director of the Blackwell.

“We’ve gone from carving on stones and marble slabs to writing on papyrus and wax tablets to Gutenberg’s printing press to typewriters and now to computers,” Roberts adds. “This exhibition is really about the art of making marks on a page, how that technology has evolved over time and how that technology opened up literacy for the masses.”

Visitors will learn how written communication was fundamental to record-keeping, including the storage of goods, and how printing addressed an important cultural need of the ruling elite to manage commerce, religion and the military.

Patrick Roberts
Patrick Roberts

Locally filmed videos will demonstrate a hand-operated printing press owned by Rare Books and Special Collections of the University Libraries, and track the history of literacy education, including the teaching of writing and manuscript and cursive penmanship.

“It fits with a mission of the College of Education,” Roberts says. “Written communication doesn’t exist if you don’t have a system for it, and to keep the system going, you have to teach the system. Education and the history of written communication – words on a page – go hand in hand.”

The exhibition grew from a discussion among members of the Blackwell Advisory Board over teaching cursive in schools. State lawmakers voted in 2017 to require public elementary schools to offer at least one unit of cursive writing beginning in the 2018-19 academic year.

“But we didn’t want to limit this to cursive,” Robert says. “We thought there was a much bigger story to tell.”

For more information, call (815) 753-1236 or email blackwell@niu.edu.

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