The silver lining: Silver City, Millennium Galleries, Sheffield - Museums Association

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The silver lining: Silver City, Millennium Galleries, Sheffield

Anthony Burton says Silver City shines light on the history of a local company, but a little more thought would have exposed more of the subject
Anthony Burton
A trumpet was the trademark of Sheffield silversmith James Dixon and Sons, and it is the prominent logo of the 200th anniversary tribute - Silver City. But this 'exhibition-as-trumpet' has a rather uncertain sound, and raises the question of what is the best way to structure exhibitions of decorative art.

Dixon's was founded in 1806 and closed its factory in 1992. The name now only survives within another firm. In 2004, Pauline Cooper Bell wrote a book about the company called
Made in Sheffield. Bell relied on the wealth of archive material from Dixon's that had survived, as well as oral testimony. Her book aspired to 'capture incidents that would show something of "the heart" of the firm'.

Bell's method was to organise her material into a series of sections arranged alphabetically (Apprenticeship… Marks… Xylonite…). Engaging as it is, this is not the best way to structure a book, where, as we turn the pages, we expect a sequential argument. Oddly enough, it might have worked better in an exhibition, where we are more inclined to sip or graze. But the present exhibition is not a voyage through social or business history.

It is set in one of the segments of the Millennium Galleries (part of Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust) that is treated more or less as a white cube (albeit with a barrel-roof). A nearby segment contains the permanent metalwork display, which is dense, both in exhibits and in verbal information, but is very well articulated so that the visitor is beguiled rather than overwhelmed.

Silver City is located in a gallery normally devoted to craft and design displays, where objects tend to be left to speak for themselves. The ethos of that gallery seems to persist in the exhibition, where one sees a selection of pleasantly gleaming objects in ten modern showcases. Alongside the silver objects, there are some documentary exhibits, neat labels and small graphic panels.

But the main impression is of an array of privileged objects, austerely presented - a kind of display that could be described as the decorative arts curator's 'default mode'.

On closer inspection, it is not just objects-on-parade. There are six sections: History in the Making; A Family Firm; Craftsmanship; Designers; The Everyday and Unusual; and Materials and Markets. Some ingenious care has obviously gone into slotting the exhibits (including many loans) into these categories. But not altogether logically: 'the social side of working life' (with the fishing club record book as a quaint exhibit) is pushed into the Craftsmanship section.

Information is sparingly dispensed on the labels: after the usual descriptive formulae, comment is restricted to a sentence, which can be too bald. A label for an 1892 catalogue of Dixon's products says: 'This may have been used as a reference book,' but surely a catalogue is a reference book.

Presumably, the label is trying to say that this copy has manuscript annotations as to prices, etc, and was therefore probably a master copy kept in the firm's offices.

This seems to betray a certain tentativeness in organising the exhibition. Another example: an early teapot (1818) is displayed near to a catalogue (1816-18) open at an illustration of a similar teapot. Presumably, we are meant to make a connection.

But these two exhibits are not next to each other (as they could have been), but one above the other on different shelves. And their labels, which do not tell us to make a connection, are visible only from different sides of the walk-round glass case. (Panel texts and labels are helpfully reproduced on take-away leaflets, but, unfortunately, one panel text is omitted and one page is misplaced.)

As an 'array', the exhibition does not have much contextual material. It is evident from Bell's book that there are lots of good pictures that could have been used on graphic panels. There are some big blow-ups on the entrance wall of the gallery. But inside, imagery is almost suppressed. Each text panel has three tiny illustrations. But why are they tiny? And on one wall there is a timeline on which small images are awkwardly placed. One has the impression of a designer struggling with inadequate material.

A more uninhibited use of imagination by the curator and the designer could have produced an exhibition with much more fun and feeling. Still, given that it was decided to adopt the 'array' method, there are other ways of organising the material. Chronology could have been one, or, in any decorative art display, arrangement by style is always an option. Here, with the present exhibits, we could have been shown neo-classicism, Victorian naturalism, Christopher Dresser's geometricism, the (1960s designs of Charles Holliday (who figures rather largely in this exhibition), and some up-to-the-minute items.

Another option, using chronology again, would have been to look at technological change. Dixon's started off working with Sheffield plate. But in the 1840s electrotyping annihilated Sheffield plate. Later, in the mid-20th century, stainless steel created an equally momentous upheaval in the company's trade. One can find out about these changes in the nearby Metalwork Gallery: perhaps that is why they are passed over with little reference in the exhibition.

It might also have been interesting to look at Dixon's from the point of view of the consumer. Although the company made swagger pieces (trophies, ceremonial rosebowls, etc), it also made a lot of workaday objects and novelties in base metal as well as silver to appeal to ordinary people. Some of these are displayed in the Everyday section: tea sets, brandy flasks, a cigar case, a gunpowder flask, a lobster fork. Even if it would not have been easy to round up a big selection of these, there seemed to be plenty of surviving catalogues from which illustrations could have been reproduced to show changing fashions over the years.

The exhibition, within its limits, is sensitive to all these approaches, and if it stimulates the critic to wish that any or all of them had been more fully worked out, that is to its credit.

Anthony Burton is a museum historian and author

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