This month's museum pick...

Univ. of Penn. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

By Marian Totty Posted on Nature


I once worked for a newspaper publisher whose wife was a nationally acclaimed raku artist. Raku is the Japanese craft of creating ceramic pieces – usually tea sets, but also pots and sculptures – using comparatively low kiln heat and glazes that don’t require high-temperature firings to set.Originally developed as a low-cost means of making pottery, raku soon became an art form in which craftsmen vied to see who could most quickly form, glaze and fire a ceramic piece. The speed involved in making such creations required the artist to give himself totally over to whatever spontaneous and uncoaxed inspirations his mind could conjure as he worked.In a way, raku illustrates the two primal, occasionally conflicting, aims of all ceramics: the creation of practical tools and the simultaneous creation of art. Raku, starting out as a pragmatic solution to the problem of a lack of high-temperature kilns, soon becomes an art with its own many permutations and set of conventions.  

It has probably always been this way with ceramics. Even the most primitive coiled pots made by prehistoric cultures aimed for symmetry and visual effect. The development of adobe and later, oven-fired, brick led to the almost instinctive development of an artistic sensibility among masons. The simple pots, containers and dinnerware of Chinese peasants evolved into Ming vases.In today’s industrial society, ceramics are virtual commodities. They are so widespread in the form of inexpensive dinnerware, tiles, pipes and museum-shop figurines that it takes a truly exceptional instance of them to make us sit up and take notice.(Sometimes the application of ceramics in the modern world goes beyond commodity or art. For example, the U.S. Air Force for years has been rumored to be experimenting with “Aurora,” a spy plane capable of speeds of more than 4,000 miles per hour. Temperatures produced from air friction at such speeds would melt a conventional airplane fuselage. Some metals, such as titanium, can withstand those temperatures, but the cost of refining and manufacturing them is exorbitant. So the Air Force experiments instead with exotic ceramic materials that combine titanium’s strength with certain clays’ ability to endure high heat without becoming brittle.)

We set out this month to highlight a ceramics museum. A routine Internet search on the topic showed us how vast the topic is. It seems many countries have a significant museum or even a set of museums dedicated to ceramics: Italy, Japan, Denmark, the United States, the UK, Morocco and more. The importance of ceramics to every nation as a marker of cultural and material achievement is almost overwhelming.So, rather than highlight one particular museum, we decided to highlight particular web sites that can lead cultured travelers to some of the more notable ceramics museums around the world.

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