The Metal Museum at 40

By Updated: February 11, 2019 10:45 AM CT | Published: February 07, 2019 2:47 PM CT

The concept of a metal museum was proposed in 1975 at the National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association conference in Atlanta. On Feb. 5, 1979, the National Ornamental Metal Museum first opened its doors to the public, in Memphis.

The museum is celebrating its anniversary with an exhibition: “40 Years of Collecting & Exhibiting at the Metal Museum,” on view through May 12. It includes work from 32 of the 36 artists previously exhibited by the museum through its Master Metalsmith exhibition series and 30 of the artists from the museum’s Tributaries exhibition series. The exhibition includes jewelry, furniture, sculpture, hardware, tools and architectural ironwork.

Located at 3.2 acres south of Downtown Memphis, the only institution in the country with a sole focus on the preservation and advancement of fine metalwork, the site includes three historic buildings that were originally part of the former Marine Hospital, a newly-built blacksmith shop and a gazebo overlooking the Mississippi River.

“For me, one of the most important aspects of the Metal Museum and what I love most about being part of it, is that it is an institution that has been built through the passion and generosity of the metalsmithing community,” said executive director Carissa Hussong. “…It is a place that inspires, rejuvenates and celebrates. And why is that important? Because we all need a place to call home. And for the metalsmithing community that is precisely what the Metal Museum is.” 

The apprentices

The Metal Museum has had apprentices almost from the beginning. They started as free labor to aid the museum in fabricating projects, conducting blacksmithing demonstrations, installing exhibitions and greeting visitors at the front desk.

John Medwedeff, a Nashville native, learned about the Metal Museum while a student at Memphis Academy of Art (now Memphis College of Art). In 1982 he became a Metal Museum intern, a position that lasted three years and three months. When he started the museum had a staff of three people.

“We did everything you could imagine,” he said.

He described founding director Jim Wallace as “the museum version of MacGyver."

“It was a seat of the pants scramble to turn old dilapidated buildings into a functional museum,” Medwedeff said.

Medwedeff left Memphis to finish his undergraduate degree in metalsmithing at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, going on to earn his master of fine arts degree there. But he left his mark on Memphis, with several public pieces. He’s also a member of the Metal Museum board of trustees.

He’s seen the quality of museum exhibitions increase over time, and the programs, collections and community outreach grow.

“In the early days, when I was there, it was pretty precarious,” he said. “Budgets were slim. Heat was rationed in the buildings.”

The sculptor, artist and blacksmith now operates a studio in Murphysboro, Illinois.

Under Hussong’s leadership, the apprenticeship program became more formalized as a two-year program with housing and a small stipend.

When Hussong began her role in 2008 there was only one apprentice in the blacksmith shop. Today there are two apprentices in the blacksmith shop, as well as one in the foundry.

“To the museum, the apprentices bring new ideas, skills and energy and help strengthen our relationship with the next generation of metalsmiths,” she said. “And through their interactions with the public, particularly with high school students, they show how diverse metalworkers can be. People are often surprised to learn that many of our apprentices are female. Our apprentices have also inspired more than a few people to pursue careers in metalworking.”

While at the museum, they work on museum commissions: designing, estimation and working directly with clients. They teach classes and have the opportunity to develop their own courses. And through museum conferences and events they meet metalsmiths from around the world.

The apprentices also have full access to the shop during non-business hours to work on creations for themselves.

That aspect is what drew Lewis Body to apply for a blacksmithing apprenticeship at the museum. After completing his apprenticeship last June, the Detroit area native decided to stay in Memphis and open his own studio.

At LB Metal Design, Body’s projects range from large scale public artworks to sculptures to architectural railings and gates.

Body, a native of the Detroit area, moved to Memphis from the Bay Area, in California, to start the apprenticeship. He had completed an informal apprenticeship in Ann Arbor, Michigan for a couple of years before working in blacksmithing shops across the country for a few years.

He had originally planned to work in Europe after the apprenticeship. But things fell into place in Memphis, he said. He made connections with those in the industry, as well as collectors and patrons. He had amassed a collection of tools. And he also found a studio space, only a couple of blocks away from the museum.

“I like what Memphis has to offer,” he said. It’s my (ideal) size of city. I like the people. I found this great space, so it kind of just worked out.”

It’s an exciting time for the Metal Museum, Body said. During his time there, he saw the staff increase in size and growth in the community outreach and museum’s collection.

“I think the community is starting to recognize it more, which is good because in the metalsmithing and blacksmithing community, everyone knows about the Metal Museum,” Body said. “But it’s funny because in the town of Memphis, nobody knows about the Metal Museum. They think it’s just a road. So, it’s good that it’s getting some attention and people are becoming more aware of what it is.”

The SIU connection

Metal Museum founding director Jim Wallace had been a graduate student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, studying under L. Brent Kington. In 1976, Wallace took a year off from his studies to organize the Artist Blacksmith’s Association of North America and its accompanying exhibition.

When the National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association was looking for a director to start a metal museum, Kington encouraged Wallace to apply and continued to serve as a mentor and friend after the museum opened.

Wallace led the museum for 30 years, retiring in late 2007.

“The relationship with SIU has remained strong over the years,” said Hussong. “Many of the museum's apprentices have either gone on to earn graduate degrees at SIU or have come out of their blacksmithing program.”

SIU is one of the only U.S. universities with a blacksmithing/metalsmithing program. And Carbondale is only about 3 hours away from Memphis.

Rick Smith, the SIU professor who leads the metalsmithing/blacksmithing program, has served on the Metal Museum’s board of directors and is active as a volunteer and advisor.

Smith describes the relationship between the college and museum as an “ongoing exchange of students.”

“The Metal Museum’s focus is pretty unique,” he said. “Our program is pretty unique. It’s almost a given that we have a relationship.”

Rick Smith, SIU professor

The Metal Museum’s focus is pretty unique,” he said. “Our program is pretty unique. It’s almost a given that we have a relationship.”

The community connection

When Medwedeff interned at the Metal Museum, he recalled blacksmithing demonstrations being the extent of community outreach.

Today the organization has a partnership with Knowledge Quest in South Memphis, with high school students exhibiting their metalwork and through community and school workshops throughout the Memphis area. Last year the museum added the Youth Makers Guild, with includes two-hour classes for children and young adults.

The museum’s Metal Studio has also created a number of pieces displayed publicly in the city, including for the Memphis Botanic Garden, at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, the Memphis Brooks Memphis of Art, the Children’s Museum of Memphis, The Links at Riverside, the Dixon Gallery & Garden, the Memphis Zoo and the Memphis Pink Palace Museum.

The future

Hussong said the museum has seen tremendous growth in all areas, especially in its exhibitions and educational programming. That growth has brought the museum more recognition and support, but means the museum is outgrowing its facilities, she said.

The museum is exploring expansion and an opportunity to expand into the Memphis College of Art building in Overton Park. The college is scheduled to close next year.

TOM BAILEY: Metal Museum makes its case for Overton Park's Rust Hall

If the Metal Museum occupied the MCA space, it would have two campuses. One site would house exhibitions, the metalworking facilities, community education and collections, while the other would become a traditional artist-in-residency program with fully-equipped studios, housing, a sculpture garden and a sales gallery.

“This would allow us to triple our galleries and metalworking facilities, add dedicated classrooms and increase collections storage, while providing increased accessibility and visibility to all of our programs,” Hussong said.

Over the long-term, the director said she would like to see the collection grow and have greater local and national awareness of the museum’s exhibitions, collections and educational programs.

“We have been a leader in recognizing talent in the field and I believe we can play an even greater role in promoting and cultivating metalsmiths in all stages of their careers, while becoming a key cultural asset for the city of Memphis that provides not only a traditional museum experience but also a vibrant community education program,” Hussong said.


National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association National Ornamental Metal Museum Carissa Hussong John Medwedeff Jim Wallace
Elle Perry

Elle Perry

Elle Perry covers arts and culture and other news for the Daily Memphian. She is a native of Memphis and a two-time graduate of the University of Memphis. Elle previously worked for the Memphis Business Journal and has written for publications including The Memphis Flyer and High Ground News.

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