Perspectives Materials

Immaterial: Metals, Part One

Dive into the magic of iron, bronze, lead, and copper.

Aug 17, 2022

Detail of the interior of a 5th-century BC bronze Chinese zhong or bell with a green patina and the text

Read full transcript with artwork images and more


This special two-part episode of Immaterial about metals takes a cue from alchemy, the ancient exploration of turning ordinary matter into gold. Metals are about making change, creating something new—sometimes almost magically. The material is capable of striking transformations: not just swords into plowshares, but metal plates into fabric. Metal can even be an equalizer, empowering the colonized with the same tools of force as their oppressors. The story of metals—how we find them, how we forge them, and what happens next—is the story of human striving.

We begin deep below the galleries of The Met Fifth Avenue in a snaking, entangled maze of hallways. To an inexperienced navigator, a single wrong turn can send you literal blocks away from your destination. Deep within this labyrinth, you may hear the rhythmic echoes of a steel hammer clanging against an anvil… these sounds emanate from the Department of Arms and Armor’s Armor Lab, where armorer and conservator Edward Hunter spends his days working with blacksmith hammers, antiques shears, and “tools of unusual purpose” on objects made from iron, steel, brass, copper, silver, gold, and more. Hunter sees the story of metal as a story of technology, power, and ingenuity. And he’s made it his life’s work; as he proclaims in the podcast, “Down here in the basement, on a Friday, it’s me and the anvil.”

The podcast introduces listeners to the heaviest musical instrument in history: an orchestra of sixty-five bronze bells belonging to the Marquis Yi, a noble of the fifth century B.C. In tandem with copper, tin is what allows bells like these to really sing. Ancient Chinese art Curator Jason Sun Tells the story of Marquis Yi and some famous forgeries of his work. Then, under the watchful eye of a nervous curator, Sun lets us strike a fifth century bell that hasn’t been played in a century or more.

In the episode, we find lead hiding in a wood-carved Si gale-gale puppet head, designed by an Indonesian Batak artist to accompany a ritual dance of mourning. The lead eyes tell a story of grief, loss, and—through the journey the puppet has taken—colonial separation.

We end the episode at The Met with the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, the most luxuriously illustrated folio ever made of Firdausi’s epic poem. Copper pigments illuminate the manuscript as the pages depict tales of strength, love, and tragedy. But the book’s luminous beauty belies the violent separation it experienced years after it was taken from Persia more than a century ago.

Listen for the whole story, and scroll through the gallery below to take a closer look at the art mentioned in the episode and some highlights made from iron, bronze, tin, and copper in The Met collection.

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