The cleaning of more than 1000 pieces of Gorham silver began in April 2016, in preparation for the exhibition Designing Innovation: The Gorham Manufacturing Company, which will open on May 2, 2019. Behind the scenes, in what is commonly referred to as a museum “swing space,” a myriad of volunteers, including RISD and Brown University students as well as community members of all ages, are trained to safely polish the Museum’s Gorham silver collection. This is the largest object cleaning project for an upcoming exhibition that the RISD Museum has ever taken on. In order to meet the goal of cleaning and polishing approximately 1200 pieces of silver in preparation for the exhibition catalog, the conservation work needed to start three years in advance. The cotton-gloved volunteers roll cotton swabs and apply a dilute solution of precipitated calcium carbonate in distilled water to remove decades of tarnish and grime from the once brightly polished surfaces. In the process of cleaning, many intricate details of the original workmanship can be observed at extremely close range, which is a particularly exciting aspect for the jewelry students at RISD who are also simultaneously designing their own creations in studio classes. They benefit from looking closely and critically at the techniques used by the renowned Gorham artisans.
The little-known fact that the Gorham factory was first located on Steeple Street, only a few doors away from where RISD jewelry students now work in their studios, creates a serendipitous continuum of historical metalworking practice. This hands-on opportunity to hold the Gorham works provides a deeper understanding and respect for the accomplishments of artists from an earlier century. The jewelry students’ immediate appreciation for the advanced level of tooling, including hammering, engraving, casting, repoussé, and chasing work, is palpable. These RISD student makers provide relevant context for the non-artist volunteers regarding the intricate art-making processes. A particularly eye-opening example was when a graduate student nonchalantly commented just how much noise would have been created while hammering a silver sheet into a hollowware bowl.
One of the most symbiotic aspects of this collaborative project is the interchange between student volunteers from the humanities and science fields and the fine art practitioners. Every morning at the cleaning table in a back room at the Museum, undergraduates and graduate students discuss their respective individual interests in archaeology, materials science, engineering, furniture making, and metalsmithing, and end up planning how to collaborate on even greater creative ideas in the future.