Iron Art: Inside the Metal Museum of Memphis

Posted on April 28, 2015


By: Anna Singletary

5824472The Metal Museum, situated atop a bluff that overlooks a sharp bend in the Mississippi River, was once the site of a United States Marine Hospital until the facility closed in 1965. Ten years later, a group of businessmen with a dream to create an industrial museum received a charter from the City of Memphis. After many renovations of the 200-year-old buildings, the Metal Museum finally opened up to the public in 1979. Currently, the 3.2-acre plot of land is home to the Schering-Plough Smithy, the Lawler Foundry, library, gallery, and gift shop, as well as the museum’s permanent collection. However, the main building of the hospital still stands ominously next the museum, untouched and abandoned. The smithy is especially fascinating as there are works of metal-casted objects, such as roses, on display for visitors to hold. The metal smiths kindly greet visitors and show them pictures of previous chartered work they have done, as well as many works in progress.

Currently on display at the museum is the exhibit “Art is An Accident” by J. Fred Woell, which is available until June 2015. Woell uses pieces of little plastic toys and found objects, like vintage coins and soda cans, casted into different metals and assembled onto pendants or pens. Many amusing images of little toy arms or Egyptian pharaoh heads pop up throughout his work. By working with mass-produced and disposable items, Woell assembles his pieces in a way that is geared towards ironic social commentary.

Also on display in the Museum until June 2015 is “Tributaries” by Vivian Beer. Beer uses different kinds of metals along with 1427727300concrete and automobile paint to make contemporary furniture and sculptures. Her furniture forces us rethink our relationship with the “domestic landscape.” Perhaps the stateliest of her work on display is a modern chair made of concrete and steel.
The Museum’s permanent collection is one of the ways that the museum physically embodies their mission to preserve and advance fine metal craft. The spectrum of the collection is broad, including Renaissance-era doorknockers, hand-forged wrought iron farm tools, contemporary hollowware, and sculptures created by artist blacksmiths. According to the staff, the collection serves two functions: it is a resource for artists and researchers interested in particular forms, processes, and techniques, as well as a treasure trove of beautiful objects that tell the story and history of metal work.

Every first Thursday of the month throughout this season and into the summer, the Metal Museum hosts an after-hours event called “Whet Thursdays.” By seeking out the help of sponsors for support, the museum invites guests to enjoy a live band, a cash bar, and food trucks while also learning about certain metal works. In the past, these learning objectives have been scratch blocks, garden markers, and bottle openers. They usually pick activities based on what will appeal most to the visitors, while also ensuring a unique, hands-on experience working with the smithy and foundry. This year, the museum is offering lessons in cuttlebone jewelry, which is a type of metal casting that uses the bones of cuttlefish to make molds for jewelry and small sculptures. Jewelry makers cut the bones in half, then carve a mold into them and pour molten metal into the mold until it cools.
The Metal Museum and Whet Thursdays are unique assets to Memphis that bring the community together through some of the city’s favorite things: music and food. But  the metalworking is what makes this stand out among other museums in the city and throughout the country.

Posted in: Arts