'Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850-1970' Opens May 3 at RISD Museum

  • PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island
  • /
  • April 26, 2019

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Gorham Manufacturing Company, Epergne and Plateau, 1872 and 1876. The Gorham Collection. Gift of Textron Inc.

The history of the Gorham Manufacturing Company is intertwined with that of Providence and Rhode Island. This uniquely local story has provided the opportunity for the RISD Museum to learn from the experiences of community members who have intersected with Gorham's legacy, and to allow that process to shape programs related to Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850–1970. Through a generous grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, the museum engaged in a nine-month community-centered planning process with community members holding a vested interest in the project. Over the course of several meetings, museum staff gathered input from six selected community advisors toward the development of interpretive materials and programs. Following a large open initial meeting, advisors joined museum staff to brainstorm and discuss possible approaches together. Education Department staff followed up with numerous individual conversations with additional community members and embarked on site visits to artists’ studios, local collections, Gorham-related sites, and other locations that provided alternate viewpoints.

Visitors to the exhibition will encounter two projects that emerged directly from community conversations: a section of the exhibition devoted to techniques and processes and an audio program that draws out and centers different perspectives and ideas. The Gorham Workbench will highlight Gorham tools and objects that have been saved and are still in use by community members, supplemented by a new video combining historic films produced by and about Gorham in the 1920s and ’30s with footage of contemporary metalsmiths. The Workbench will shed light on innovative manufacturing approaches developed by Gorham as well as centuries-old silversmithing processes used by the company’s employees. The audio program explores complex themes through firsthand accounts and tells nuanced stories using immersive soundscapes. This project will highlight perspectives that are often overlooked but are crucial to our understanding of the company and its products throughout its history and into the present.

These in-gallery experiences will be complemented by public programs that shed light not simply on the luxury of Gorham silver, but on the company's labor practices, innovative methods, environmental impacts, reliance on cultural appropriation, and more. These themes resonate as as deeply now as they did when Gorham was in its heyday. This is particularly true, for example, of the lingering environmental effects of the facility that was located on Providence’s Mashapaug Pond and the crucial role artists and designers continue to play in the vitality of Rhode Island today.

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