Metropolitan Museum Electrotypes

I brought my family to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last weekend to see their collection of electrotypes. This is a funny area of collecting. The electrotypes (high fidelity copies, akin to plaster casts) were once a core part of the Met’s collection before they began acquiring entirely original works of art. They languished in storage from the early 20th C. until this curator decided that the story of this collection and the technology behind it deserved a bit of light and air.

My interest in these objects is principally in the technology behind them, rather than the objects themselves, though many of them are beautiful. Electrotyping is a branch of electrometallurgy which encompasses electroplating, most notably. These things are essentially pure plating, built up in a mold, or over a model, until the plating is thick enough to stand up on its own. The detail the craftsman was able to achieve is literally on a molecule-by-molecule level of fidelity to the mold. The joy of these things is that extreme detail: flower petals, pupils and eyelashes, veins on oak leaves, bird feathers, etc.

The great makers of lighting in the early 20th century, among them Tiffany, E. F. Caldwell, and The Sterling Bronze Co. availed themselves of this process as well, which is where I became familiar with this type of work. Those guys designed originals directly for this process in many cases, and used the craft simply as a great method of production.

One of the main attractions was this Tiffany vase.

An original set of un-assembled electrotype parts of that vase is also on display, and was more interesting, in my eyes than the original.

There were several cases of completed, finished, usually gold or silver-plated, objects. They tend, however, to the fancier, goopier end of the design spectrum.

A view of the Met's original exhibition of the electrotypes

My favorite object, from a pure design viewpoint, was this baroque silver fire-screen. It seems thoroughly impractical from the standpoint of deflecting sparks and popping embers.

My favorite object from a pure oddity viewpoint. I neglected to read the exhibition card for this one... leaving me to only guess at its purpose: very, very fancy tattoo machine? pin and brooch...electrified? What is that wire doing dangling off the end?

Details showing the realization of super-sharp detail. This level of detail was alternately possible in a cast metal object only with hundreds of hours of chasing work. That could be the subject of another post, stay tuned.

A beautifully designed, Aesthetics Movement, trade card for one of the principal makers of electrotypes supplied to the Met.

Lastly, the main modern expression of this process, the one with which we are most familiar is the humble “bronzed” baby shoe. An actual baby shoe is coated in some sort of electrically conductive material and submerged in a plating tank until enough metal accretes on its surface. Touching. Or if you are so inclined, you could subject your adult shoes to the process as well, as in this case, mounted on an urn… containing? - David Calligeros

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