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Memphis museum shows its metal

Courtesy National Ornamental Metal Museum

Not only is the National Ornamental Metal Museum the only U.S. institution devoted to preserving and promoting fine metalwork, it also claims one of the Memphis’ best views from a bluff above the Mississippi River south of downtown.

Three historic buildings, once part of a public-service hospital, house the museum, which opened in 1979. In addition to the expected galleries, visitors can watch blacksmiths at work in the museum’s smithy and foundry. The artisans aren’t doing busy work; they are often commissioned to create metal pieces, among them a weathervane for the Memphis Zoo, a sterling tea service for a nuclear submarine and trophies for the Memphis in May barbecue contest.

A number of items sold in the gift shop — candlestick holders, ornaments, wall hooks and steel trays, for example — are made at the museum.

Given the museum’s location, event business is brisk. Judy Davis, membership outreach manager, steers planners toward her favorite venue, a heated tent with see-through walls. Its views of the river and Memphis’ bridges never disappoint, she said.

Davis also leads tours. On a recent one, industrial engineers from FedEx watched a blacksmith at work. She’s also designed scavenger hunts for adults; clues ensure that teams examine metalwork sculptures up close, to appreciate their fine detail.

Teams also can try their hand at making metalwork, under close supervision of metalsmiths, of course. “They go to the scrap bin, weld, bend and try to make sculpture,” Davis said. “I tell them to be ready to get dirty, and to bring smiles and gloves.”