“Gold,” a mostly riveting exhibition that opens today at the American Museum of Natural History, is the museum’s latest show-and-tell about a precious natural material. Its predecessors have been devoted to amber, diamonds and pearls. Taken together, these exhibitions form a genre at which the museum excels.
By ROBERTA SMITH Published: November 18, 2006 found at nytimes.com
The Gold formula, executed here by James D. Webster, overseeing curator of the exhibition and chairman of the museum’s division of earth and planetary sciences, and Charles S. Spencer, chairman of its division of anthropology, goes as follows:
American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West and 79th
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Using art, artifacts, natural samples, wall texts and mural-size photographs, weave together narratives about the material’s formation, its effect on the course of history and its uses by artists and artisans. Lace with startling facts and fascinating vignettes (a link to Spanish sunken treasure, for example). Throw in a few comparative displays that verge on installation art. Lure visitors in one end and wait for them to emerge from the other with minds boggled and eyes dazzled. Greet them with a well-stocked museum shop.
But, really, nothing is as good as gold, and very little ranges so vigorously among function, symbol and frivolity.
Today 78 percent of the gold mined annually is used for jewelry. It is also basic to such coveted inessentials as the Oscar, Emmy and Grammy statuettes and of course gold records (all included here, along with the Kentucky Derby trophy won by Venetian Way in 1960).
Yet gold, an excellent conductor of electricity, is also used in computer technology, and it is arguably the world’s best reflector of light. Not for imperial gleam did the two Apollo 11 astronauts who walked on the moon wear glass visors surfaced in gold. The gold coating kept the sun from burning their eyes. A helmet is here, along with a small gold replica of the lunar module. It is one of three commissioned from Cartier by the French newspaper Le Monde as gifts for the crew when they visited Paris.
In all, “Gold” makes gold seem like the blood coursing through the world’s veins — and that’s not just because, as one cluster of charts demonstrates, its deposits form under volcanic, hydrothermal conditions involving water gushing through rock.
If despite the pirate stories and gold rush movies of your childhood, or more recently the HBO hit “Deadwood,” you remain innocent of gold’s brute power to seduce and corrupt, this show has the cure. It presents gold in three states: raw, artistic and monetary. Raw and monetary provide most of the thrills and insights, as the displays suggest that human artisans have rarely been able to surpass the beauty of gold in its unadulterated natural form or in its straightforward, bankable form.
But if the art part of the exhibition seems relatively weak, consider the competition. To one side are several drop-dead vitrines in which crystallized gold erupts from quartz in fan-shaped flares or coiling plumes, like slightly rough-edged Art Nouveau bric-a-brac. To the other side are coins from an array of cultures and epochs, including a Wells Fargo strongbox apparently brimming with $20 double eagles. Also in the unadulterated category are the 27 United States Treasury gold ingots — each the size of an egg carton, each weighing around 27 pounds — protectively displayed in a vitrine with extra-thick Plexiglas.
The show’s opening section may cause you to wonder about how the concepts of beauty, fetishism and value took shape in the mind of prehistoric man. Imagine that you are a hunter-gatherer living around 20,000 B.C. In a creek bed you discover a small nugget of gold, one of the few minerals that occur naturally in a nearly pure state. It glimmers, it glows, it doesn’t tarnish; it is solid light, fire that doesn’t burn. As the exhibition demonstrates, the shapes that gold takes in nature vary and lend themselves to interpretation. A sea horse. An imposing ring (Wagner, anyone?). The state of Texas. It must be magic.
Unusually malleable and ductile, gold was probably the first metal humans worked with. For the record, one ounce can be pounded into enough gold leaf to cover the interior of a nine-foot cube, which is shown here, or drawn out into 50 miles of very thin wire, which is not. A series of small medallions illustrate the differences among yellow, pink, white, green and black gold — the results of what other metals are alloyed with gold, which is rarely used in its pure state .
The displays begin with a few simple but imposing chunks of the subject at hand: the large molten-looking nugget aptly named “The Boot of Cortez”; the aggregate of shimmering granular crystals known as the Newmont Gold Mass; the clump of surprisingly regular cubes of the La Trobe Nugget. We learn that gold leaf and gold wire, in particular, can occur more or less naturally.
The show segues into the history of mining, with a timeline of the world’s gold rushes. Minerals are superseded by facts about minerals. You learn that 90 percent of the gold that has been mined has been brought out since 1848, when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California, and that 40 percent of that total has come from South African mines — an industry memorably documented by the photographer Sebastião Salgado.
Mickens/American Museum of Natural History
A cast gold Asante
mask pendant, dating from the early 1900s. The Akan people formed the powerful
Asante state in sub-Saharan West Africa in the late 1600s, in what is today
the nation of Ghana.
“Golden Ages,” the section devoted to human creations in gold, is relatively small and consequently feels a bit perfunctory: a little Egyptian gold, a piece of Scythian gold, some African pieces (including a beautiful mask pendant from Ghana lent by the Brooklyn Museum), a Javanese dagger whose rippling blade is bisected by the rippling line of a snakelike dragon, a rattle from Tiffany & Company, some Japanese lacquer and a trove of radiant dowry jewelry from Bangladesh in 22-karat gold.
The best and largest vitrine is devoted to pre-Columbian gold, one of the strengths of the museum’s holdings. Here an embossed Coclé helmet looks a little like a brain, and a Coclé cast tumbaga pendant shows two finely worked hunters, carrying spears, clubs and trophy heads. One side of this four-sided vitrine displays little but a row of miniature tupu pins, used by Incan women to secure their clothing. The label points out that virtually all Incan gold, thought to be among “the greatest accumulation of gold in history,” was melted down, much of it by the Incas when the Spanish ransomed their king, the rest by the Spanish, who took the ransom and killed the king. The boot of Cortez, indeed.
Surveying the varieties of ingots in this exhibition’s final gallery, you may wonder where all that Incan gold is today.