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Mosaic panel with string of pearls

March 5, 2017

The 3:30min video shot in 2008 depicts the production of a replica of a door from an 1860 mosaic cabinet. It is displayed alongside the original object in the Gilbert collection. The cabinet is extremely elaborate and decorative; covered in flower motifs and ribbon, it used to belong to Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, as the accompanying information explains. The design and history of the cabinet (Palazzo Pitti and the Medici family) as well as the materials used (lapis lazuli, mother of pearl, gold dust) place the object in a rather high position in terms of economic and social context. It was created specifically for its owner and not for the public.

The way the video is shot portrays the act of making in an artistic and cinematic way through the close ups and changing angles. The information about the cabinet focuses on describing the materials and techniques used by the craftsmen in recreating the mosaic. There is an interesting distinction between how the museum refers to the makers of the object; the designers of the original piece are listed as artists and workers, yet the makers of the reproduction appear in the descriptions as craftsmen.

Although the information section does refer to the makers as ‘craftsmen’, the video is quite clearly aiming to portray the process as artistic, in a similar way as fashion brands film their ‘making of’ videos showing the making of luxury leather bags, shoes or fine jewellery. Whilst this includes the designer/artist in the exhibition and makes the viewer aware of the process behind the finished piece, at the same time it bears the notion that only craftsmanship of luxurious, elitist objects is worth showing; making of objects crafted in cheaper materials or using technologies that are considered to be less advanced tend to receive considerably less attention, be portrayed in a style more appropriate for a documentary rather than appreciating the artistry behind producing an object.

This type of “behind the scenes” video is pretty much exclusive to this object; partly because recording, let’s say, the making of a piece of jewellery from 14th century India is unlikely, but there also seems to be an element of Eurocentrism to this piece. The distinction between the discipline of design as art vs craft is often heavily based on the geography of the object in question (i.e. objects from African countries are more likely to be classified as ‘craft’ by European museums whereas objects from European countries, especially France and Italy, are more likely to be classified as pieces of art).

The Museum’s choice to record the making of this particular artefact in this manner shows the way craftsmanship is approached depending on its origin. While this is consistent with the history of the object and the hard, complex work of the makers, in the age of accessible transport and recording equipment we must ask the question why isn’t this the way objects in non-European collections are displayed and appreciated?

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