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Special Exhibition: Thinking Outside the Box: European Cabinets, Caskets, and Cases from the Permanent Collection (1500–1900)
Unusual boxes of varying sizes, shapes, textures, colors, and purposes—all from the Museum’s European decorative arts collection—are presented by curator Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide.


Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide: Hello. I am Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide, a curator in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Department at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I am also the curator of the current installation Thinking Outside the Box: European Cabinets, Caskets, and Cases from the Permanent Collection (1500–1900).

When you visit this exhibition, you will be struck by the large number of objects—ranging from very, very tiny to a huge, impressive strongbox—that have been gathered in this one exhibition gallery. There is a great variety, not only in size, but also in media and in shapes, texture, and color.

Boxes have long been an important aspect of our everyday life. We always are looking for a container to put our personal belongings inside. And I think the fascination with these objects is not only dependent on their shapes or the precious materials that they were made of, but particularly also of the possibilities that they may hold treasures or even secrets inside.

In the exhibition, we have chosen to place the objects not by chronology or by the country of origin, but we have organized them by the material that they were made of or decorated with. So you will find a grouping of objects that were made of tortoiseshell, others were made of leather or covered with shagreen. There of course are wooden objects that show beautiful decoration in veneer or have lovely carved decorations in wood. There are others that are decorated with hard stones, enamel, mother-of-pearl, or even textiles.

Many of the objects were made for a very specific usage, such as to contain snuff—the taking of snuff was very popular, particularly in eighteenth-century Europe. Then there were others to hold tea leaves or sugar or a variety of spices. In other cases there were leather containers specifically to protect one precious object, often made of silver, or a group of such objects. In other instances it isn’t always so clear to us at first sight what a particular object was meant for. In studying the selection of the various cases and boxes and chests, it became clear to me however that many of them served a purpose in the elaborate dressing rituals of the bath. For us, it is hard to imagine that there was a semi-public ritual, quite popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, where ladies of certain social standing or members of the aristocracy would be receiving guests—even tradespeople, their servants, perhaps, who were waiting for the orders for the day, or even their loverswhile at the act of dressing. They would be in semi-state of dress and they would be seated in front of their dressing table, which was oftentime compared to an altar of love or a secular altar on which a beautiful arrangement of personal objects was displayed.

It was no wonder then, if this ritual was so important, that special sets of dressing services were made, oftentimes of silver or silver gilt. And in the exhibition you will find one complete example of such a dressing table set. It is English, consists of at least seventeen different objects, ranging from a dressing table mirror to a pair of candle stands, various boxes in different shapes and sizes, as well as trays for gloves and little pots for pomades and various creams. This set is a rare surviving ensemble because we have to keep in mind that silver was considered a precious metal, and in times of economic hardship or as a result of changes in fashion, many of these silver ensembles were sent to the mint and melted down.

In the show are also individual objects. Some of them were formerly part of a larger ensemble. One of my favorite silver boxes is about an eight-inch-long rectangular box, which has a lovely shape resembling a sarcophagus but it is tiny. And when I found that particular box in our storeroom and asked one of my colleagues if I could have it for the exhibition, he said, "Well, of course, it is a root box.” And that led me to find out what kind of roots would have been stored inside this lovely little box and how they might have been used. It turns out that in the past, when dental hygiene left much to be desired, little brushes were made of the roots of certain types of plants—fibrous or woody plants, such as the marshmallow plant, for instance—which were then cut into six-inch lengths, boiled, dried, and then sliced with a little knife at either end of the root so that the ends could be used as little brushes dipped in an abrasive powder to help you keep your teeth clean—really the forerunner of our modern toothbrushes.

All the objects in the exhibition come from the collections of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Some ninety percent of these objects usually are in storage, and we came up with some wonderful examples that have either never been seen or not for a very, very long time.

Among some of the earliest caskets are a pair of pastiglia caskets. They were made during the Renaissance in Italy and were very likely used for the storage of various toiletries or ribbons or things that you may use for your daily toilette. The name pastiglia refers to the fact that the decoration—which consists of three-dimensional molded figures usually, made of gesso-like material—that to this gesso a little bit of musk paste was added. And we have to remember that fragrances were very important during the Renaissance period. Not only did they expel foul odors—they also were thought to protect the wearer from airborne diseases such as the plague. Since decoration covers all four sides as well as the lid of these pastiglia caskets, the owner would be invited to pick these objects up. And by handling these lovely boxes through the warmth of his hands, the scent would be brought out and as a result the owner would be protected from various infectious diseases, and it is important to remember that.

Quite striking among the porcelain objects is a bright pink and gold tea caddy that was made by Christopher Dresser. He was a very influential designer during the late nineteenth century in England. In this case he opted for a design that looked almost like a wrapped gift. The strong pink—which resembles marzipan, something delicious to eatwas borrowed I think from a popular ground color at the Sèvres manufactory in France. It is very, very striking, as today we take our tea bags out of a little carton box, which isn’t much to look at. But in the past you could have the choice to take your tea leaves out of such a wonderful dainty porcelain box.

One of the stars of the exhibition, really its centerpiece, is a very large strongbox made out of solid steel. It is not only imposing in size, it is also very, very heavy. We had it weighed for the exhibition and it turns out to be nearly eight hundred pounds, and for that reason, we had to make a special reinforced platform to hold this imposing piece. We have displayed the strongbox open so that everyone can admire the intricate locking mechanism, consisting of nine bolts and various leaf-shaped shields. We know very little about the history of this piece. We believe that it was made in Nuremberg, in Germany, long known for its metalworking traditions. But we really do not know for whom this object was made. It could of course have belonged to an individual person, someone perhaps who owned large plots of lands and received monthly rents or yearly rents of the farmers. But it could also have been a strongbox that belonged to the town or perhaps to an army or a particular cooperation, and it would have held valuables—coins, important documents, possibly even jewelry—but because of its sheer weight and intricate locks, it would really have been very difficult to break in or carry this chest away.

The show also includes a number of so-called nécessaires. These are small, precious boxes often made of gold and decorated with mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, or semiprecious stones, which contain a myriad of miniature tools—implements for dressing, writing, and sewing. A particularly lovely example is the one made by James Cox in about 1770–72, in London. Cox was known for his intricate works in gold and precious stones. The one on exhibition also includes diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, and—perhaps specifically made for export to India. When we look at all the tiny little beauty implements, it is hard to imagine that they were actually used. It may perhaps more have been a very precious gift to somebody and a lovely little trinket or toy to show off to your friends and neighbors, rather than for daily usage.

I think boxes still appeal to us today, and I really like to think that the combination box of choice today is the modern BlackBerry or iPhone, which offers us all we need, just like the nécessaires of the past did to the eighteenth-century men and women.

The installation is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from December 7, 2010, through August 21, 2011.

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