The Dinnerware Museum: A Window on Customs

The Dinnerware Museum: A Window on Customs

Published on Wednesday, January 15, 2014.
Roy Lichtenstein dinnerware

Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923-1997), Jackson China Company, Durable Dish Company, Falls Creek, PA, place setting, 1966, whiteware, photograph courtesy of Bill Walker.

In 2012, Margaret Carney finally took a step she’d been dreaming of for 15 years: She launched the world’s first and only museum exclusively devoted to dinnerware. Since that time, the ceramics expert has been absorbed in grassroots funding efforts and the search for a permanent location in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The Dinnerware Museum had an exhibition at SOFA Chicago in November and now has a show, “Three Courses,” at the Museum on Main Street in Ann Arbor, which runs through May 12. We asked Carney to tell us how her venture is going and where her passion began.

You’ve been raising funds for a permanent location. How is that going?

I would say it’s going slowly but surely; we have enjoyed our popup exhibitions, but I am 100 percent committed to a permanent location. We have too many things to be without one. We have more than 1,000 pieces, which I’ve collected over the past 15 years. So I have a lot of things I’d like to get out, plus I want a research library and all kinds of permanent installations. We want the whole thing.

You’ve got a background in ceramics and museum work. What interests you about dinnerware in particular?

I think the fact that it’s a universal. No matter what time period you live in, no matter what culture, you have something you eat out of. Everybody has a memory about dinnerware, whether it pertains to some annual event like Thanksgiving or just day-to-day. And I don’t care if it’s takeout boxes – there is a ceremony involved in sitting and eating or standing and eating or running and eating. I like the way that dinnerware is a window into our customs, shared memories, and all of that.

You’ve been under way with a nonprofit designation and a board for going on two years. What has surprised you about the project in that time?

I’m surprised how the whole project has evolved even in the last year and a half. Because originally, I was thinking about Grandma’s dishes and midcentury design, French, German, and Japanese dinnerware. Then I became terribly interested in the kitsch and the weirder art products that reference dinnerware and have nothing to do with functionality. One of first things we purchased was the Sandy Skoglund photograph of The Cocktail Party. We don’t own the installation, but we own the giant archival photograph. One of people’s favorite things at SOFA Chicago was David Oliviera’s wire scribble sculpture; people loved that.

You get a kick out of others’ reactions.

I like discovering new things. I love to be constantly stimulated and transfer that to everyone else. Even with something as simple as the fact that the uranium used in orange-red Fiestaware was discontinued in 1944, because it was needed for the bomb – that makes people look at dinnerware differently.

What’s next for the Dinnerware Museum?

Next is trying to get a broader funding base. We have the joy of being at the historical museum through Mother’s Day. We’re focused on introducing more people to what we have, getting them excited, knowing we exist.

Monica Moses is American Craft magazine's editor in chief.