Not your average museum—a metal art mecca

September 14, 2004
By: Bob Nichols

Editors Note: Bob Nichols, author of The Fire of Creation, a reader favorite on, recently toured the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, Tenn. The following account of that tour display only a few of the many items on display at this amazing facility.

Closed for exhibit change.

What? "The sign says the museum is closed for exhibit change," my wife said.

"But they told me there was a reception today!"

About that time,we spotted a man in work clothes walking behind the museum, and we gave chase. Catching up to him, we asked if a reception was scheduled for that day.

"Yes, it starts at 3:00 p.m.," he replied. It was only 12:45 p.m.

Art Deco Palm Leaf, Wendel Broussard

"Uh see I'm writing an article on the museum, and I wanted to get in and take a few photos before the crowd arrives." The man smiled behind a large mustache that would make Tom Selleck nod with approval. "Well, we just finished mopping the floors upstairs, so you'll have to wait until they dry. However, I can let you in on the ground floor for a peek." I was grateful for the early start, but hoped I did not cost the man his job.

Meeting the Director

A short while later, Linda Raiteri, my contact at the museum, arrived and welcomed us. "Have you met the museum's founding director?" she asked. "No, but we would certainly appreciate an introduction," I replied. "Oh, here he is; this is Jim Wallace, the museum's director." I looked into a smiling face with a big mustache. I extended my hand to the man who has guided the museum since its inception.

Reception Guests

Maybe it's my middle-class roots, I had never attended a museum reception before, and I was not sure I would fit into this crowd. After meeting Linda and Jim, however, I felt right at home. This is a different kind of museum, both in focus and in culture. The staff are not overpaid executives with friends in high places. They are real people—hard-working people who are passionately dedicated to the goals of the museum.

The Museum's Birth

I began to read some of the literature provided in the museum's reception area: "In 1976 the city of Memphis leased an abandoned piece of property to a group of businessmen whose dream was to develop a museum dedicated to the collection, exhibition, and preservation of fine metalwork." The founders all were Memphis-area metal distributors and fabricators who belonged to the National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association. "The [facility] price was right—a dollar a year to the city in exchange for a 3.2-acre site, three buildings, and a spectacular view of the Mississippi River.

First Ordinal Position, Brian Russell

Renovating two of the three buildings began in the fall of 1978, and the National Ornamental Metal Museum opened to the public in February of 1979, without a single dollar from city or county taxpayers.

"Jim Wallace, the first and only director of the museum, was hired in 1978, a year after receiving his Master of Fine Arts degree from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Wallace and a few volunteers set to work renovating what had been a nurse's dormitory to create a gallery, office, and reception space.

"The early years were tough. According to John Medwedeff, a museum intern in the early 1980s, his pay was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a bed in the basement. One winter Wallace said there was only enough money to pay for three months of heating. Medwedeff had to choose which three."

The museum has come a long way from its humble beginnings.

Steeped in History

Walking around the museum grounds, I can see that the place has some history to it. The site once was part of the U.S. Marine Hospital constructed in the 1930s. However, some buildings go back as far as 1870. The mounds in the park across the street are attributed to the Mississippian Indians and date back to the 1300s. The Spanish explorer DeSoto is said to have first viewed the Mississippi River from the mounds.

A Blacksmithing Forge in the Museum Smithy

The museum has accommodations for visiting artists and the director and his family. One of the buildings is being renovated as the future home of the museum's Julius Blum Library. Out back, several newer buildings are nestled among the many old trees on the property. The Schering-Plough Smithy was completed in 1986 and houses artists' facilities, metalworking demonstrations for museum visitors, classes, and workshops. Still under construction is the new Lawler Foundry.

Beyond Exhibitions

What is not readily apparent is that while exhibiting incredible works of metal art is a primary function of the museum, teaching, repairing, promoting, researching, preserving, helping, and inspiring are equally important. The sense of community I felt among the artists I spoke with was as refreshing as it was unexpected.

Butterfly Lady Necklace, John Randal Lowery

Artists are reputed to be a self-centered bunch, secretive and aloof. I found this group of artists to be very willing to share methods, techniques, and even secrets. When I told them I was a hobby blacksmith, I immediately received invitations to join several of the members at their home shops for a casual hammer-in. The museum is not just about blacksmithing, however. Sculpture and jewelry that would be at home in any gallery in New York City are exhibited.

I talked with one of the artists, a jeweler named Robert Chumney. He and his wife, Janis, and their daughters were enjoying the wine and cheese supplied by the members. He told me he actually has a degree in history but was drawn to jewelry-making at an early age. His association with the museum began years ago when he began attending the annual Repair Days. He participated by repairing jewelry for several years, and then one year his wife was asked to participate too. We he asked if Janis would be working in jewelry restoration or perhaps in the smithy, he discovered that the other artists had learned of Janis' skill in the kitchen and wanted her to cook for the event. Did I mention the artists here also are extremely practical? When asked if she also made jewelry, Janis replied, "No, I am the sorcerer's apprentice."

Flowering Dogwood, McKinney Forge and Design Studios Inc.

Even though he has a jewelry shop in his basement, Wallace clearly is focused on the less dainty arts. He still refers to the jewelry as the "tiny, shiny stuff."

The Exhibit

We went back inside for another look around. I was glad I was permitted to enter early, because a large crowd had arrived, and the museum now was full of people. Most of them, like me, were simply stunned at what they were seeing.

Shown in simple elegance were examples of gold, titanium, platinum, bronze, and silver jewelry. Several pattern-welded Damascus knives testified to the mastery of this technique by artist-blacksmith Rob Keeler. One of the real eye-catchers was a larger-than-life flowering dogwood branch on loan from a bank in Houston, Mo.

Not all of the works in the exhibition were created for an exhibition environment. Some may look out of place only because they are. All have been created to answer a need or desire, sometimes as simple as "let's see how this works." Phillip Baldwin's work was as diverse as a ceremonial knife, a railing and balustrade study, and a lamp, all executed with the a jeweler's precision, but on a blacksmith's scale.

Grill Sample, c. 1925

European masters created some of the exhibits in the '20s and '30s. Compared with modern cold-bent steel railings punctuated with cast-iron rosettes, these works sadly testify that we have forgotten what hand-wrought iron was meant to be.

Virtually every metalworking technique can be found within the museum walls: forging, casting, repouss, welding, brazing, and enamel on metal. The museum is a crash course in how many different ways the human hand can manipulate the metallic elements.

Anniversary Gates

It is easy to glide past the massive gates that secure the museum grounds if you are not aware that they are a work of art in themselves. The original gates, made in the 1930s, had suffered considerably in the humid Memphis climate. For the 10th anniversary of the museum, the gates were replaced. The new gates were designed by Richard Quinnell Ltd. of Surrey, England, an internationally known and respected manufacturer of wrought ironwork. After the design was finalized, the cost was more than the museum could bear, so a decision was made to enlist the aid of blacksmiths all over the U.S. and the world to make the delicate scrolls and rosettes called for in the original design. The coordination of the installation of more than 1,200 collars and scrolls and 300 different rosettes was an engineering feat that culminated in the Anniversary Gates.

Close Up of Rosettes on Anniversary Gate

Visiting the Museum

If you live within driving distance of Memphis, or if you plan to visit Memphis, you would do well to add the museum to your itinerary. It is open Tuesday – Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday, noon – 5; closed Monday and for one week during exhibit change. Adults are asked for a modest $4 entry fee. The museum can be accessed on the Web at Information and driving directions are available on the site. You'll be amazed at the scope and beauty of its metal works of art.

Bob Nichols

Contributing Writer

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