In 1943 Norman Rockwell painted “Freedom from Want,” depicting a family sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, smiling and laughing above pristine silverware as they wait for grandmother to serve the turkey.
According to Dr. Margaret Carney, director of The Dinnerware Museum on Main Street, this is the classic image most Americans associate with dinnerware — something cherished by an older generation, when large family dinners were the norm and mother kept china in the dining room cabinet for special occasions.
Carney aims to challenge this belief. The Dinnerware Museum does have the “traditional dinnerware” of Rockwell, but it also has contemporary pieces from around the world, demonstrating the bonds that tie people around the dining table.
“If we all thought about it probably everybody would be interested in dinnerware,” Carney said in a recent interview. “We all celebrate the important aspects of our daily lives through the memories of special dining events. That’s kind of universal.”
Carney, who was previously director of The Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art in Alfred, NY, developed an interest in dinnerware after being exposed to the work of Hungarian-born industrial designer Zeisel, who created best-selling dinnerware in the 1950s.
When Carney decided to start the world’s first museum devoted entirely to dinnerware, her ancestral home of Ann Arbor was a logical choice. Citing the city’s “foodie” culture and hospitality toward the arts, it made sense to continue her love for all things dining-related in the city.
Though the non-profit museum has yet to find a permanent home, it has already found success in its first two pop-up exhibitions, held last year in Ypsilanti and Chicago; Carney hopes the 500 N. Main pop-up will find similar success. The Museum's current exhibit, “Three Courses,” curated by Carney, breaks down into three sections, or “courses,” containing work from the U.S., Europe and Asia.
The first course, “Whetting your Appetite,” features dinnerware from around the world. The second course, “Setting the Table,” features “celebrity dinnerware” used by historical figures like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford on camping excursions. And the third course, “Getting a Snack,” features historic snack sets, one of which includes sculptures of two small rats standing next to a cup and saucer in a piece called “Rat Snack Museum.”
As Carney noted, most pieces on display have been used in people’s homes.
“A majority of the functional dinnerware that’s in the collection has been used by people and loved by people and holds all the memories in the world for them,” she said. Many of these pieces “spark another person’s memories when they come in and see it and say, ‘Oh, I remember that.’ Or ‘My aunt had that China.’ ”
For Carney, such experiences are key in her motivation to share the viewing of dinnerware from across the world.
“Everybody has these shared experiences,” she said. “And that’s really what dinnerware’s all about. It gives you a window into the habits and customs of people all over the world.”
Three Courses runs through Monday, May 12. Open weekends 12-4pm and by appointment.
500 N. Main St., Ann Arbor, 697-382-1415.