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On 13 August 1913, ‘rustless’ steel was first discovered in Sheffield by Harry Brearley[1] and throughout 2013 there has been a city-wide series of events, exhibitions and activity celebrating the centenary of this remarkable discovery. At the Millennium Gallery, home of the city’s internationally renowned collection of metalwork, the exhibition Designed to Shine: 100 Years of Stainless Steel chronicles a century of design and innovation. Showcasing the huge diversity of objects made from stainless steel, the exhibition explores the legacy of Brearley’s breakthrough, a discovery that was to shape Sheffield, and arguably the world, during the 20th century.

Despite huge changes in industry and the loss of jobs, Sheffield remains an important centre for specialist steel production and successful designer-makers working in the metal trades.  We felt it was important to counter the notion that nothing is produced in Sheffield anymore; we wanted the exhibition to be an insight into the city’s rich metalworking history, but also recognise that contemporary Sheffield remains at the heart of stainless steel innovation, both in industry and the arts.

When Museums Sheffield started to plan the exhibition almost two years ago, it soon became clear that, other than cutlery, there were barely a dozen stainless steel objects in the city’s Designated[2] metalwork collection. As the collection aims to be a comprehensive representation of the light-metal trades in Sheffield and beyond, filling this gap swiftly became our main priority.

Funding for the exhibition[3] meant we were in the very welcome position of being able to purchase new objects for the collection.[4] We also contacted other organisations to ask about possible borrowing objects, but we were surprised by how little exists in British museums overall. It would seem that stainless steel, possibly lacking the perceived status of silver or the historic interest of pewter or plated wares, is hugely underrepresented in decorative-art collections and as a focus for study and research.

The exhibition also gave us a unique opportunity to engage the people of Sheffield in the process of active acquisition. Through local press, we asked for public loans and donations of stainless steel objects, as well as people’s personal recollections. We wanted to reflect how stainless steel became a part of people’s working and domestic lives and record some of the social history of the industry. Amongst the objects that came into the collection through these generous public donations were a 1930s knife made, unusually, by female ‘Little Mester’ Jessie Shaw, and also a striking 1960s bracelet decorated with etched portraits of The Beatles.

Despite starting with a lack of objects, you still always get to the stage of having to narrowing your ‘long list’ down. This is the hardest part, as you have to make some tough decisions and leave out objects you really like! However it’s vital that you think about what objects work together, what story are you going to tell in each display, are the visitors going to be confused by your layout and what you are trying to say?

The exhibition development stage basically boils down choosing key themes; if visitors take one idea or even a feeling away from an exhibition, what do you want that to be? After a great deal of discussion, two of the exhibition’s main strands turned out to be the continuing global legacy of the development of stainless steel and the diversity of objects produced.

It would have been quite easy to just select objects made in Sheffield, but this narrow view wouldn’t have recognised the huge worldwide impact stainless steel has had in both art and industry. Our historic metalwork collection include items made all over the world, and we wanted to continue the idea that a museum reflects the wider world of contemporary decorative art, using a material that originated in Sheffield.

We also were keen to include everyday domestic items that people are familiar with, and perhaps don’t realise a museum would collect. It is often the objects people think are really common that never get collected, they are all too easily discarded and their stories get lost over time. Such domestic items sit alongside objects that challenge people’s perceptions of how metal can be used. The stainless steel wedding dress is the perfect example of this, a locally made object that really makes the visitors stop and think.

We’ve continued to collect people’s individual stories in the gallery itself, inviting visitors to leave their own memories:

“..my stepfather was the last man to make large knives for paper cutting. When he left (retired) there was no-one else with his skill and strength.”

“…I always remembered the sound of the ingots dropping and when the fog was heavy the deep sound would resound right up the valley sides.”

It’s been fantastic to celebrate the legacy of Harry Brearley’s discovery by bringing such a wonderful range of objects together, but I think it’s these personal recollections that really bring the story of stainless steel to life.

Clare Starkie is Curator of Decorative Art for Museums Sheffield. The Designed to Shine exhibition continues at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield until the 13 October 2013. Entry to the exhibition is free.


[1] Although this is widely recognised as the production of the first ‘true’ stainless steel, as with almost every great ‘discovery’ some dispute exists: http://www.bssa.org.uk/about_stainless_steel.php?id=31

[2] The Designation Scheme is a mark of distinction, identifying and celebrating pre-eminent collections of national and international importance in non-national institutions. The Scheme was established in 1997 and is now administered by Arts Council England. There are currently 140 Designated collections held in organisations across the whole of England.

[3] The Designed to Shine exhibition is sponsored by the Freshgate Trust Foundation and The 100 Club, a unique initiative comprising businesses from across the region.

[4] Through auctions and collectors, we were able to select high quality but highly affordable tableware from well-known designers such as Gerald Benny and Stuart Devlin. Local manufacturers such as Taylor’s Eye Witness and Swann-Morton and artists such as Alison Counsell were also very generous in lending and donating objects from their current body of work.

Tags : 100th anniversary of stainless steelcentenary of stainless steelHarry Brearleymuseum exhibitionsSheffieldSheffield historystainless steel
Clare Starkie

The author Clare Starkie

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