I am a firm believer that some of the greatest museums in the United States exist outside of cosmopolitan centers, off the highways and byways that connect the tip of Maine to the coast of California. My favorite museum is off of I-55 on the banks of the Mississippi River, just south of downtown Memphis, Tennessee.
The Metal Museum is the only museum in North America dedicated to promoting the art and education of metal smithing. In total, the museum includes exhibition spaces, a library, a blacksmith shop, a foundry, a repairs and restorations lab, and a sculpture garden and gazebo. Visitors can explore these facets of the museum’s campus to learn more about the collection through innovative open storage displays in the library or discussions with metal smiths at work in the forge.
Situated on land which tells the tumultuous early history of the City of Memphis, these historic buildings which were part of a US Marine Hospital campus built during the Civil War in 1884. The hospital was built in part to find a cure for yellow fever, an epidemic which tore through Memphis several times, yet had the most devastating effect on the population in 1873. After the hospital closed in the mid-1960s, the property was deeded to the City of Memphis. In July 1976, blacksmith, artist, and the museum’s first director James Wallace leased the property for $1 a year to start a museum and smithy.
The museum faces Chickasaw Heritage Park, which is technically not part of the museum, but is tied to the site’s history. It houses two 16th century Native American ceremonial mounds created as a fortress to Chisca, a Chickasaw Chief. Possibly due its position on a bluff and with convenient access to the Mississippi River, the Spanish, French, and Americans overtook the site from the Chickasaw to construct protective forts or outposts. During the Civil War though, the Confederate Army destroyed these sacred mounds by hollowing them out for ammunition storage and constructed Fort Pickering onsite.
To enter the Metal Museum, visitors must walk through the 10th Anniversary Gates, a collaborative labor of love created by 170 metalsmiths from around the world. The gates highlight 350 rosettes representing “incredible range of personal statements about the individual artist's interests, national pastimes and sometimes whimsical design motifs.” Walking into the museum feels like walking into someone’s home – the exhibition spaces are small, the floors creak as you walk. The rooms still feel like residential spaces, with architectural quirks, nooks, and crannies that are delightful to discover. Pay attention to– believe it or not – the light switches. The museum has permanently installed cast iron light switch covers by artists like Richard Prillaman and Jeannie Tomlinson Saltmarch, which provides a subtle and satisfying game of I-Spy for visitors. These are the touches that set the Metal Museum apart – the same touches visitors may purchase in the museum’s gift shop.
Under James Wallace’s directorship the Metal Museum started its most popular annual fundraiser, Repair Days. Over the course of two days in October, the museum invites over 200 metalsmiths throughout the country to come onsite to restore and repair hundreds of metal objects from the community. As the museum’s website describes, metalsmiths take on “everything from rusted garden furniture to broken jewelry to warped heirloom silver” – to even the rusted gates of Graceland from the home of Elvis Presley, one of Memphis’s many hometown musical heroes. After 30 years of renovating the museum and raising three sons on the property, Wallace retired in 2007, making way for the new executive director, Carissa Hussong.
Memphis has many more museums to supplement a trip to the Metal Museum. After spending time under the shade of the museum’s gazebo, take a quick drive downtown to visit the National Civil Rights Museum, the Cotton Museum, and Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art.
For more information about the Metal Museum, its history, programs, and exhibits: https://www.metalmuseum.orgLocation: 374 Metal Museum Drive, Memphis, TN, 38106, USA
Olivia Knauss is a M.A. student in NYU’s Museum Studies Program in New York City, NY. She recently completed a Development Internship at the Tenement Museum and Collections Internship at the Museum of the City of New York and will soon begin a summer internship in the Development Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Before moving to New York City, Olivia worked at the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology as a grant writer and Phillips Exeter Academy’s Lamont Gallery as a Collections Assistant & Archives Coordinator. She received her B.A. in Art & Art History from Rhodes College in Memphis, TN and is originally from Buffalo, NY.