ONE OF A KIND
If you find yourself complaining again that theres nothing to do in Memphis and youre tired of hanging out at Graceland, The National Ornamental Metal Museum, hidden downtown on the bluffs of the Mississippi, is an ideal place for you to get some culture, learn a little something, or just enjoy a breath-taking view of the river.
Before my visit, I had only been to the grounds once for a wedding and though I appreciated the site for its natural beauty, I was unaware of its spectacular past and importance. The Museum is not only located in a place rich with Memphis history, but it is the only museum in the country dedicated solely to the art of fine metalwork and boasts the largest collection of these works in the United States. The NOMM is host to frequently changing exhibits from some of the most famous metalsmiths in the world and the river view alone is worth a trip.
This month, the Museum is featuring works from Ramona Sodberg, winner of the 2001 National Metalsmiths Hall of Fame Award for her achievements in jewelry making. Her earthy, tribal, and sometimes amusing pieces meld together ebony, silver, and copper with everyday materials like pebbles, rubber, and plastics. These exquisite works are whimsical yet grounded in history. They blend ancient artifacts with objects like timepieces and other modern media to create art that transcends its place as jewelry to become individual commentaries on todays world.
The collection also consists of several works from Sodbergs students, including one piece that mixes mother of pearl and Indian beads with pink plastic hair rollers and another necklace made of ermine tails. Sodberg has studied silversmithing in Norway and textiles in Mexico and has led craft seminars in Iran and Turkey. At eighty years old, she is an author, an artist, and a teacher and has become one of the most prolific contemporary jewelry producers in the world. This exhibit is especially important to Memphis because we are one of only three venues in which her works will be shown. The exhibit that began in Seattle traveled to San Francisco and then here where it will conclude on September 15th.
Aside from changing exhibits, the Museum owns a permanent collection of about 3,000 metal works ranging from a sixteenth century iron cross to medieval swords and perhaps its most famous work, The Anniversary Gates. The entrance gates to the grounds have an ornate history all their own. Designed by world- renowned blacksmith, Richard Quinnell, they were built to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Museum in 1989. The scrolls and rosettes of the gothic gates were crafted by 180 artists from 18 countries and took years to complete. Quinnells works are so famous that he has recently been honored by the Queen of England, who made him a Member of the Order of the British Empire. In addition, the Museums Julius Blum Library, open by appointment only, is the home to over 2,000 rare and first-edition books, some illustrated with pure gold and dating back as far as the 17th Century.
The site of the Museum cannot be overlooked as a sort of museum by itself. The outbuildings on the grounds were once the home of the United States Marine Hospital, built in 1884 from bricks brought from Napoleon, Arkansas (the town mentioned in Twains Life on the Mississippi). The original hospital was washed away by a flood in the early 1800s and reconstructed on these bluffs. Since then, the buildings have been utilized by the government as a rehabilitation hospital for the Coast Guard and more recently to house soldiers from the Gulf War.
Today, they are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and abandoned, their future use uncertain. Before the government owned the property, the grounds were a part of Fort Pickering, a town noted to be even larger than Memphis. Fort Pickering extended to the land across the street from the Museum where it is said that Hernando Desoto first gazed upon the Mississippi in the 1500s. The grounds, which are now a part of Desoto Park, are marked by ceremonial mounds built by the Chickasaw Indians and were later used as ammunition storage during the Civil War.
The Museum is also the home of The Schering-Plough Smithy, an operational blacksmith shop where you can watch in-house metal workers create practical tools and modern art sculptures. The smithy has been commissioned to restore everything from the gates at Graceland to a suit of armor that is now displayed at the Vatican. Every year the Museum holds a fundraiser weekend called Repair Days where you can bring anything from a broken pair of scissors to a dysfunctional garden tool to be repaired.
Over 100 volunteers and art students come from across the country to provide hands-on activities and services for the public. This year, the workshop is scheduled for October 18th through the 20th and proceeds will benefit the Museum. If you are interested, you can even sign up for classes at the shop and learn everything from how to make mint julep cups to crafting jewelry, birdcages, and knives.
If you just feel like a picnic, the grounds are open to the public for free. You can relax in the permanent sculpture garden or sit in a gazebo built from cast iron remnants from early 19th century Beale Street. The gazebo provides a fantastic view of the river and has become a popular spot for events and weddings. If you like, you are welcome to toll the famous bells on the bluff or even buy a replica of them in the Museum Gift Shop.
To visit, take Crump Blvd toward the bridge until you reach the sign on the right. The Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 5 and Sundays from 12 to 5. The cost is $4 for adults free to children. Students are admitted for $2 with ID. For further information about upcoming exhibitions, call 774-6380.