Showcasing Our Silver

Dec 12, 2013

The Great Salt, c. 1629–38, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Loan from Harvard University, Gift to Harvard College from Richard Harris, 1644.

On October 12, 2007, Drew Faust sat under a tent in Harvard Yard for her inauguration as Harvard University’s 28th president. As is customary for this ceremony, seven pieces of 17th- and 18th-century silver, usually housed at the Harvard Art Museums, were displayed next to the incoming president to honor her position at the head of Harvard’s proverbial table. Among these items was The Great Salt, a dish for the once-precious mineral that was historically set at the head of prestigious tables.

When the Harvard Art Museums open in fall 2014, visitors will have a chance to see these objects up close in the Silver Cabinet Gallery. This cabinet will also contain many other important silver pieces that were made between 1550 and 1850 in Britain and colonial America—a period when such objects were used for a variety of sacred and secular rituals. In 17th- and 18th-century Britain, for instance, these activities ranged from taking communion to taking tea (considered an exotic drink at that time).

Ethan Lasser, Margaret S. Winthrop Associate Curator of American Art, has selected some of the best pieces from our collections for this installation. With about 600 silver objects to choose from—including one of the most important collections of British silver in North America—this was no small task. He has chosen 60 objects from across the collections of our three constituent museums—the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler.

These works will be arranged thematically, relating to the rituals for which they were (and are) used. Unlike most works in our collections, these pieces have been passed around tables, handled and sipped from, and used for special occasions. With this in mind, the cabinet is being built on a scale that’s appropriate for the objects’ domestic nature and will be located at the threshold of our Naumburg Room, a space that has been used as a common room for the museums’ staff.

“These objects had a very active life,” Lasser notes. “They still do—which is the interesting thing… I think it’s important to realize that these silver pieces contain complexities, meanings, and motifs, just as paintings do. I hope this gallery communicates that.”

For a sneak peek at some of the silver that will be showcased in the cabinet, scroll through the above image carousel.