Iam standing in front of a pair of Model 1867 Navy pistols, trying to figure out why they are so mesmerizing. The guns are identical, two-toned ivory and black steel. They have minimal, inlaid gold lines and platinum fleur-de-lis engravings. They are also facing each other.
It’s a display technique that is used three times in the Decorative Arms: Treasures from the Robert M. Lee Collection exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art—once for these pistols, once for a set of cowboy-themed army revolvers, and once for a pair of Monte Mandarino flintlock guns. Something about the symmetry appeals to my eyes while the posture of mutual destruction appeals to my head—confirming a long-held thought I have about guns, which is also a feeling, which is that they’re bad.
It’s not a nuanced take, and, like most hangups, it can be traced back to childhood. Some background: my sister and I grew up in a Unitarian, second wave feminist, hippie household in the Midwestern Bible Belt. This meant that our teenage rebellion included things like heavy makeup, Christianity, and wearing running shoes that weren’t the “barefoot” kind we grew up with. (My dad was, still is, a very specific kind of hippie.)
At one point, this also meant “trying guns”—which is not a hard thing to do if you have friends who hunt. After a few sessions of Coke-can target practice in a vacant parking lot, I accepted an invitation to shoot “God’s bird” with a friend. “God’s bird” is ruffed grouse, a pear-shaped partridge lookalike out of which—when you stand on her wings and pull up on her feet—two breasts fall out into perfect filets.
It went … just OK. It turns out, hunting is mostly waiting around, being silent and still in cold temperatures and uncomfortable positions. Thirty minutes into acting like autumn foliage, I aimed my 20-gauge shotgun in the general direction of a grouse, fired a loud cloud of metal, and missed. I think I might have screamed, too, but who can really say? I don’t have any desire to do it again—partly because I’m against human-on-bird crimes, but more broadly, I have a bad taste in my mouth about the whole topic, finding less incentive the more time passes to get into guns.
Gun violence in America is—by the numbers—scary. As one of the highest-income nations in the developed world, the U.S. has 25 times the homicide rate of any comparable country, as well as the weakest gun laws and the most guns (393 million), as reported by the 2018 Small Arms Survey. Statistics for women and intimate partner violence are bad. Statistics for gun access and suicide are abysmal.
My sister, whose rebellion did not include a gun phase, now deals with the aftermath of firearms as a part of her job. She’s an RN at a VA hospital in North Carolina, and guns are the ghosts of the ward, haunting veterans in broad and exacting ways—from old gunshot wounds to PTSD symptoms to the present, looming threat of self harm. (Veteran suicide rates are 1.5 times that of the general population.)
Last year, a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD and violent delusions attacked a nurse on my sister’s floor. A few months ago, a patient shot himself in the hospital parking lot. Elderly dementia patients, despite being advised to turn in their guns for safety reasons, often don’t—the idea of parting with such a personal object being too much of an indignity, one that my sister describes as “more debasing than giving up the car keys.” Since the Mercy Hospital shooting in Chicago two years ago, she has also become more anxious about active shooters.
Though mass shootings only account for 1 percent of all gun deaths in the U.S., the frequency of these events has resulted in a psychological footprint that we retread every time a new incident is reported—which is all the time. In the last five years, the longest number of days we’ve gone without a mass shooting, defined as an event where four or more people are injured or killed with a firearm, is six days, according to the Gun Violence Archive. As I write this, it has been exactly one day since the last mass shooting on Feb. 9, where three people were killed and two were wounded in a bar in Youngstown, Ohio. By the time you read this, it is likely that the count has restarted.
Back in the gallery, my daughter and I have moved on from the 1867 pistols and are now weaving in and out of the many glass display cases on the floor. Somewhere between the beautiful puffer pistols engraved with precious metals and the beautiful shotguns carved with elephants, I find myself wondering if these artifacts have ever killed any people or elephants. As I stare at a gilded eagle wing wrapped around the barrel of a handgun, I question whether these embellishments would be just as interesting if they were attached to, say, teapots, instead of weapons. Or is violence part of the appeal?
Gold and platinum. Platinum and gold. Pretty shapes, so intricate. I am being seduced, I think. We keep looking.
Inside a glass-covered cutout in the wall is another Monte Mandarino piece—not the master engraver’s facing guns, but a flintlock fowling rifle made of walnut and steel. Four feet-long and graceful-looking, the rifle is decorated with stylized foliage known as black leaf. On the butt of the gun, a fantasy engraving of a Venus-like woman is flanked by two maidens, and two tiny cats perched atop golden scrolls.
Towards the back of the room, an Italian-made gun cabinet containing four hammer double shotguns, altogether known as “The Diana Set,” sits one step above the floor on a raised platform. The geometrically carved walnut cabinet, hand-crafted by Guiseppe Rivadossi, and the burled wood and steel shotguns—engraved by Francesco Medici (not to be confused with Francesco de Medici—appear to shimmer and gleam, exchanging brightness.
Near the exit, my daughter frantically calls me over to a dark wood and satin case whose contents are above her sightline. She’s excited because, like The Diana Set, this gun is one of a small number of items displayed inside its container, making it seem special in the way that all boxed objects are to 7-year-olds. When I lift her up to see the pair of rock crystal pistols inside, she declares them her favorite and takes several pictures with my phone that I am instructed to print out as soon as we get home.
The pistols are, indeed, very glamorous and sparkly, if not entirely functional as weapons. Made at the peak of the transparent firearms trend in the early 1990s and adorned with red enamel, gold, and diamonds, the pair of luxury branded Asprey guns are designed to hold “liquids for drinking” (aka alcohol), but never bullets.
Although the crystal pistols appear to be the only nonfunctional pieces in the room, the opening wall text sets me straight.
“… While all arms in this exhibition are functional, most have never been fired or used. Instead, they were often designed and manufactured for ceremonial, display, and exhibition purposes …”
I finally get it. In a sea of didactic text, this line is the only one that—passively, partially—addresses the “why” behind my shapeless dissonance. It’s not a fear of guns or a distaste for hunting. It doesn’t actually matter whether or not these particular firearms were ever used. It’s the nagging feeling that there’s an elephant in the room that isn’t carved into the base of a rifle.
The elephant is this: showcasing guns—ceremonial or otherwise—as objects of beauty and artifacts of history without also acknowledging them as weapons of violence and trauma ignores the experience that a great number of visitors bring with them into the museum. In my opinion, this is not so much a moral failing as it is a communication error for an institution that helps us understand the cultural objects we live with.
Granted, I don’t live with a gorgeously embellished flintlock fowling rifle. But two springs ago, the wall of my old house caught a bullet when a manhunt ended with a police shootout. My daughter—as much as she might desire to—does not live with a diamond studded crystal pistol. She does, however, walk in and out of public spaces where people carry concealed weapons.
For gun-shy people like me—and probably for people on the other side of the spectrum too—it is not so easy to separate form from function when it comes to objects that engender such deep personal associations. And while there is no world in which any art museum would want us to leave our personal filters at the door, they also haven’t provided programming opportunities that stray from a historical or craftsmanship point of view with this exhibition.
So is it on me to walk into the room and join the conversation everyone else is having? Where we talk about the history of collecting, craftsmanship, and beauty without addressing the fact that the guns we’re admiring are (figuratively) loaded? Or is it on the museum to bring me in?
In aiming to stay above the fray, I believe that—this time—the NMA has overshot neutrality and ended up a few degrees into detachment. While this is better than the alternative of smothering the viewer with interpretation, it’s not a situation where we need to pick one or the other. We can have a gallery full of beautiful firearms as well as a dialogue about their ugly side.
Decorative Arms: Treasures from the Robert M. Lee Collection closes this Sunday, Feb. 16 at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.