Ruth Bigelow Wriston Curator of American Decorative Arts
1. Tell us a little about your background and the path that led you to join The Met
I trained as an art historian at Smith College (B.A.) and in the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art (M.A.). My first job out of graduate school was at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which collaborates with Williams on that program. It was a dream job to be the Clark’s curator of decorative arts. I got to work in many media, but especially with 18th-century silver and ceramics. I researched and wrote a scholarly catalogue on the Clark’s British Silver (English, Irish & Scottish Silver at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, published in 1997), and in the spring of 2000 I was invited to join the staff of The Met’s American Wing to catalogue the collection of early American silver. That volume, on which I worked with Medill Higgins Harvey, was published in 2013. It was then that I also began to curate, collect, and research jewelry.
2. Describe your role at the Museum
I am one of several curators in the American Wing who deal with the decorative arts. My areas of specialization are silver and jewelry, primarily dating from the 17th century into the early 20th century. The Met’s department of Modern & Contemporary Art picks up after that. A curator’s job is extremely varied; every day is a little different. In brief, I research, exhibit, publish, and care for the collection under my care. I also seek to acquire new objects; teach and lecture; meet and cultivate collectors and donors; work with our interns, docents, and members of the public who call on me for advice. We also work closely with other museum departments, especially Conservation, Education, and Development.
3. Why are the decorative arts important and specifically jewelry?
The decorative arts are essentially utilitarian objects—at least for the most part. We depend upon them for our daily lives, whether they be furniture, beverage- or tablewares, or lighting equipment. What always moves me about the decorative arts is that they are so consciously designed and/or decorated to make them beautiful. We don’t need a cut-glass goblet to drink our water, but we love to do so. As for jewelry, that suggests an even deeper and more personal need, and it is not just about adornment. Jewelry always carries some meaning, power, or memory beyond its appearance. It might be part of a ceremony or it might link us to a society; other examples have religious connections. In my view, it always carries some sort of memory—perhaps of it’s previous owners, of where we acquired it, or of the occasion it marked. Other decorative arts do that as well, especially silver, which is routinely personalized in some way, with inscriptions, monograms or even heraldic engraving.
4. How frequently does the Museum organize jewelry exhibits?
I wouldn’t say there is a schedule. There have been jewelry exhibitions off and on throughout the Museum’s history. Just last year we staged Jewelry: The Body Transformed, and this year we’ve had Jewelry for America, which was a nice way to keep the momentum and interest going.
5. How did “Jewelry for America” come about? What was the process involved and how long did it take to put together?
I had been thinking about it for some time when I proposed to several colleagues the idea of doing a major Museum-wide exhibition. All of the Met’s 17 curatorial departments hold examples of jewelry, across time and place. It seemed logical to organize an overview first. Because Jewelry: The Body Transformed explored jewelry from ancient Mesopotamia to the present day, there wasn’t room for much American work. My department head and I discussed the possibility of an American-focused exhibit, and I liked the idea of dipping deeper into a narrower topic. I’ve been collecting jewelry for the American Wing for nearly 20 years now, researching it as I did so. It was a pleasure to select from our holdings and to create a narrative using only Met collections.
6. What goals do you hope to achieve with the exhibit — and what are some takeaways you’d like visitors to have?
I wanted visitors to see the jewelry as works of art and also as distinct cultural markers. It’s been wonderful to see people respond to both the jewelry and to the themes into which I’ve organized the exhibition. The notion of sentimentality and memory strikes a chord with many, as do other topics, such as how economic and industrial growth affected design and production. They love (or hate) the idea of hair jewelry, and are dazzled by the passion for diamond-encrusted examples following the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1867. The turquoise and coral Navajo necklaces have been hugely admired, as they should be. The role of women jewelers, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is so important and so relevant. One of the most popular cases displays jewelry—mainly silver—made in Greenwich Village during the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the small selection of contemporary artists’ work towards the end of the gallery. I am very happy to have included some costume jewelry as well. It is such a great American story.
7. Which is your own favorite piece in the exhibit?
That is an impossible question! Here are a few favorites: the Tiffany & Co. diamond corsage piece (silver-topped gold, acc. no. 41.84.20a-f); the Paulding Farnham designed orchid brooch (2016.739); the Marcus & Co. plique-a-jour brooch with conch shell pearls (2016.107); the moonstone intaglio (65.140); and the Marie Zimmermann opal brooch (2011.10.2). But I love them all, and if you asked me again next week, I would likely make a different selection.
8. Is there anything you would have wanted to see in the collection that may not be included?
As far as the collection goes, we will continue to add, refine, and consider how best to tell the story of jewelry in American life. My checklist was by necessity restricted to work in the Met’s collection; had I been able to borrow from outside, I might have gone in other directions, but because I could call upon other departments in the Museum, I had plenty of choices. Five departments are represented.
9. Are there any details from the exhibit which might delight visitors?
Yes, but so many! Being able to see the Society of the Cincinnati badge juxtaposed with the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Mattew Clarkson wearing a related one is a delight. The diamond drop earrings with snap-on covers; the Vulcanite hair comb; the chatelaines!; the Cartier New York diamond lorgnettes with two sets of lenses (for a woman of a certain age); the remarkable Louis C. Tiffany-designed Queen Anne’s Lace hair ornament; Ed Wiener’s brooch that looks like a cross between Peruvian gold and a Star Wars character; Bill Harper’s extraordinary “Faberge’s Twins,” so brilliantly enameled; Thomas Gentille’s eggshell necklace; and Daniel Brush’s 21st-century take on an ancient torque, made of aluminum tubing and studded with tiny diamonds. Oh yes, Kenneth J. Lane’s cuff bracelets (copying Verdura) that once belonged to Lauren Bacall. I could go on….
10. With the success of Jewelry for America, do you envision jewelry becoming more interwoven in future exhibits on fashion and cultural lifestyles?
It would be wonderful for jewelry to gain a higher profile in art museums. It is one of our earliest art forms, often beautifully designed and created, at once universal and yet highly personal. It is certainly part of fashion and culture, but also of the history of art and design.
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