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Perspectives Materials

Immaterial: Metals, Part Two

Let’s talk about the metals that break the rules.

Aug 31, 2022

A metallic black and gold texture with the text

Read full transcript with artwork information


Mercury, silver, and gold. Three of the most powerful substances on Earth are also among the most enigmatic. Mercury, also known as quicksilver, reflects the world back to us. Silver creates systems of influence and exchange. And for some, gold allows us to speak and to be heard. These metals have been used to finance empires, inspire myths, justify atrocities, and advance our scientific understanding of the universe. Although coveted by civilizations across time for the power and abundance they signify, it may be their innate properties, the way they glimmer and shine like lights in the sky, that fascinate us most.

For our season finale of Immaterial, we focus on three stories that reveal the power—and the magic—of these unpredictable, rule-breaking metals of alchemy. The episode begins with mercury, a mysterious silver-colored substance revered for its liquid nature. In the nineteenth century, Louis Daguerre, a theatrical set designer from Paris, discovered that the highly volatile material could be used to “paint” images onto a surface with light, creating what he called “daguerreotypes.” This technique eventually developed into modern-day photography, and while mercury is no longer necessary, some contemporary photographers, like Daniel Carrillo, still use it to capture details that are otherwise impossible to record.

Silver coins aren’t just items of exchange, they are tokens of statehood, the messaging of mighty empires and humble republics. Displaying the likeness of a ruler, they reinforce authority; and, more than anything else, embody the trust we place in our governments to provide a stable economy. Harvard University economic historian Irene Soto Marín, along with ancient technology scholar Benjamin Hartnett, look back at silver’s origins in Ancient Rome and break down the history—and the true cost—of this currency.

We end our episode with a story about a highly-ornamented, gold Akan staff of office in The Met’s Michael C. Rockefeller Wing that connects traditions with storytelling, myth-making, and language. Yaw Nyarko, a New York University professor and Aboafohene, or sub-chief, of the Kumawu traditional era of Ghana, explains how an ȯkyeame, or linguist, uses the authority of their staff to transform messages into powerful, elaborate, metaphor-rich images. Diving into these traditions, we examine how Ghana’s colonial era is merely a footnote in the tale of a long history of the cultures living in what is sometimes referred to as Africa’s Gold Coast.

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 mercury, silver, and gold in The Met collection.


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Irving Penn's "The Tarot Reader (Bridget Tichenor and Jean Patchett), New York" with two women in stylist black clothing reading tarot cards with a diagram of a hand behind them